France's continuing battle with the Church of Scientology took a bizarre twist yesterday as the justice ministry announced an inquiry into the mysterious destruction of more than 3.5 tonnes of evidence against the organisation held in a Marseille courthouse.
According to the state prosecutor the evidence, including dozens of sealed files, was apparently shredded through the negligence of a court clerk, not as a deliberate attempt to affect the outcome of a case against several Scientology leaders in the south of France.
But the incident follows the suspicious disappearance last year of one and a half volumes of a 10-volume mass of evidence against the church in an almost identical case in Paris.
The office of the prime minister, Lionel Jospin, issued an immediate statement: "The question must once again be asked as to whether certain services of the state have not been infiltrated by sects. Such a question cannot afford to wait long for an answer."
The Marseille documents - including financial statements and profiles of Scientology members - were destroyed last August, supposedly as part of a clear-out of the court's archives, but the loss was revealed only this week. The files related to an investigation opened in 1990 against seven Scientology leaders in Marseille and Nice who are due to stand trial later this month accused of fraud and illegally posing as doctors.
Jean-Michel Pesenti, a lawyer representing a former Scientologist who brought the case, said: "At the very least, this is suspicious. It's too much of a coincidence.
"Fortunately most of the documents on which the prosecution case is based are safe, but Scientologists could well apply to have the trial postponed because of this."
"If this is a genuine mistake it is unpardonable in itself," said Olivier Morice, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in the Paris case. "But it could also be an attempted infiltration by Scientologists who, using completely inadmissable methods, may have found a way to ensure these documents disappeared."
Unlike the United States, France and several other European countries, including Germany, refuse to recognise Scientology as a religion.
Founded in 1954 by a late American science fiction writer, L Ron Hubbard, the Los Angeles-based organisation claims more than 8m members worldwide, including 4,000 in France.
One of its main teachings is that the human race's problems are due to disembodied souls brought to the planet millions of years ago. Church members submit to personality tests, and have to pay to take expensive "purification courses". Well known members include the Hollywood stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta. Scientology was described as a sect in a 1996 French parliamentary report and appears on a list of 173 groups under government surveillance to check the activities of cults and sects in France.
But the organisation's leaders claimed an important victory in July, when the French supreme court ruled that it did not have the authority to decide whether Scientology was a religion. The court upheld an earlier verdict that acquitted nine Scientology members of corruption and theft.
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