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Scientology Fined $900K for Organized Fraud

(CN) - A Paris court fined the Church of Scientology more than $900,000 for organized fraud, but rejected prosecutors' bid to ban the group from France, The Associated Press reported.

Eric Roux, a spokesman for the organization's Celebrity Center in Los Angeles, said the group would appeal Tuesday's verdict.

After a three-week trial, a panel of the Correctional Court convicted the Church of Scientology's French office, its library and six of its leaders of organized fraud. Investigators said the organization's "obsession" with financial gain drove some of the questionable practices it uses to keep members in a "state of subjection," the AP reported.

The underlying complaint was filed more than a decade ago by a woman who said she took out loans and spent more than $30,000 on Scientology materials after she was recruited in 1998. She claimed the group refused to reimburse her or let her leave. Her case was eventually consolidated with two others.

Founded in 1954 by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology claims 10 million members worldwide, including celebrity followers Tom Cruise and John Travolta. It has 45,000 members in France.

Scientologists believe that man is an immortal, spiritual being who can better himself through technology. The organization has come under fire for its denouncement of psychiatry and its alleged harassment of critics, labeled "SPs" or "Suppressive Persons."

Scientologists often ask new recruits to volunteer for a reading with an electropsychometer, or "E-meter," a lie-detector-like device that purportedly measures their spiritual well-being. The church uses the results to identify "areas of spiritual duress or travail," according to its Web site, and urges members to buy books, vitamins and coursework to correct the issues.

The plaintiffs said this amounted to fraud.

Roux called the verdict a "modern Inquisition" and told CNN that it was "really dangerous for the freedom of religion in our country."

Olivier Morice, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the case was "historic," because it marked the first time that the Church of Scientology has been convicted of organized fraud in France, the AP reported.

The U.S. Justice Department has criticized Belgium, Germany and other European countries for labeling Scientology a cult or sect and passing restrictive laws against it, according to the AP.

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