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Scientologists go on trial charged with fraud and extortion

Eleven members of the Belgian branch have been charged with fraud, extortion, running a criminal organisation and violating the right to privacy.

Image: Associated Press

THE BELGIAN BRANCH of the controversial Church of Scientology went on trial yesterday facing a possible ban for fraud and extortion, charges it claims are meant to blacken its reputation.

The case opened in a packed Brussels courtroom where the prosecution demanded that the church, known internationally for superstar members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, explain where it got its financing.

“The church’s revenues were roughly €5,000 a week; €2,000 came from the sale of books and videos and €3,000 from courses and training,” the Belga news agency quoted the group’s treasurer as saying.

Revenue

The treasurer, who worked for the church until 2005, said she was not paid, but was not required to pay the church fees, while her husband contributed about €10,000 for training.

Scientology Shooting Source: Associated Press

The church stirs sharp divisions — critics say it is cult and a scam, while supporters say it offers much-needed spiritual support in a fast-changing world.

The Belgian authorities launched a first investigation in 1997 after several former members complained about its practices.

A second probe followed in 2008 when an employment agency charged that the church had made bogus job offers so as to draw in and recruit new members.

The authorities as a result charged 11 members of the Belgian branch, plus two affiliated bodies, with fraud, extortion, running a criminal organisation and violating the right to privacy.

A conviction could lead to a ban.

Last week, the church said it had “no doubt” it would be cleared.

Church of Scientology The London headquarters of the Church of Scientology, Queen Victoria Street. Source: PA ARCHIVE IMAGES

“The Church of Scientology goes to court with the firm intention of seeing the fundamental rights of its Belgian members finally recognised,” it said in a statement.

“Not only does the Church contest the charges against it, which affect the fundamental rights of all Scientologists, it also intends to denounce the serious judicial abuses (against it) of the past 18 years,” it said.

Leah Remini speaks out 

The church has also been in the headlines recently, with actress Leah Remini opening up again on her former life in Scientology and its biggest public face, Tom Cruise.

“Being critical of Tom Cruise is being critical of Scientology itself. You are evil,” she said on US TV channel ABC’s 20/20 programme airing on Friday.

King Of Queens 200th Episode Leah Remini and Kevin James from King of Queens. Source: Associated Press

Remini has written what her publishers describe as a “bravely confessional” tell-all memoir titled Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology, which will be released on 3 November.

The memoir will detail her more than 30-year membership in Scientology.

Remini left in July 2013 when she began to challenge the organisation’s control over its members. Her own daughter was also coming of age in the organisation and she didn’t want that life for her.

“As time goes on, you start to lose touch with the real world. The mindset becomes ‘us against them,’” Remini said during the TV interview.

“The decision to leave is you are giving up everything you have ever known and everything you have worked for your whole life.”

Once she left Scientology, she spoke out about the disappearance of her friend, Shelly Miscavige, who was the wife of the church’s leader David Miscavige. She even filed a missing persons report for Shelly with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Headquartered in Los Angeles, the Church of Scientology was founded in 1954 by American science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard.

It is recognised as a religion in the United States and in other countries such as Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Sweden, and claims a worldwide membership of 12 million.

- © AFP, 2015

Additional reporting by Business Insider. Due to ongoing court proceedings the comments have been disabled.

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