BRUSSELS, Oct 1, 1999 (AFP) - The controversial Church of Scientology was again under the gun in western Europe Friday after simultaneous raids and seizures of its documents in Belgium and France, the Brussels prosecutor said Friday.
Jos Colpin, spokesman for the prosecutor's office, told AFP Belgian police with warrants swooped on 25 locations Thursday, searching premises, seizing bookkeeping documents and temporarily detaining people for questioning. He said two such searches were also carried out in Paris at the request of Belgian authorities, but added that no charges were yet pending against the church in either country, and that all those questioned had been released. "The files on Scientology members are not simply membership contracts," said Colpin. "They contain highly personal information. So the investigation could be expanded to include violation of privacy laws." The seizures resulted from a fraud and abuse complaint filed in Brussels in 1997 by a former member of the church seeking recovery of money she had paid.
They followed close on the heels of a high-profile trial in Marseille, southern France, in which seven scientologists were charged with fraud. The prosecutor in that trial, which concluded on September 23, argued that "beneath the religion there is a clear, institutionalised business drift" in which church officials practised "mental manipulation" to extort money from people with problems.
A verdict is to be handed down November 15 against the seven, who face up to five years in jail and stiff fines if convicted for alleged swindles between 1987 and 1990 on behalf of the church, which is officially listed as a sect in France.
Among the Belgian premises searched Thursday, in Brussels, Malines, Louvain, and Heidonck, were the current and former headquarters of the church, and a variety of groups and businesses called Citizens Commission on Human Rights, U-Man Belgium, Valgo International Consult, PR Consult, Impact Consulting, Delta, and Advance Consulting.
"These commercial concerns are offering so-called management training to established companies in order to gain their sympathy," said the prosecutor's spokesman.
In 1997, prosecutors testifying before a Belgian parliamentary committee called the Church of Scientology one of the country's three largest movements, with some 5,000 members.
The Los Angeles-based church, founded in 1954 by the late science-fiction author L. Ron Hubbard, offers self-improvement and self-healing courses on the basis of Hubbard's writings, which spell out principles he called scientology and dianetics.
The prosecutors told the committee the church charged 8,000 to 80,000 Belgian francs (200-2,000 euros, 8,368-20,920 dollars) for its courses. The church claims six million members worldwide and an estimated 300 million dollars in assets.
The Marseille trial was highlighted by accusations the Church of Scientology had a "mole" in the French presidency and tried to infiltrate defence and police departments.
It was also enlived by the suspicious destruction of mountains of state's evidence just before the trial began.
American actor John Travolta, a member of the church who happened to be in Paris at the time for a Scientology wedding, beat a hasty retreat home when he realized the trial was in progress for fear, his entourage said, that he might be called as a witness.
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