Scientology Denounces Belgian Fraud Trial
Scientology has denounced what it says
is years of judicial harassment against it in Belgium, just days
ahead of its trial there on charges of fraud, extortion and criminal
The Church of Scientology in Belgium said in a statement that the case amounted to religious discrimination and vowed to fight it every step of the way.
Two Scientology organisations and at least 11 senior members go on trial in Brussels on Monday, when Belgian prosecutors will accuse Scientology of being a criminal organisation. If convicted, that could lead to the Church of Scientology in Belgium being shut down.
A statement Friday from the Belgian Church of Scientology said: “Not only does the Church deny the charges alleged against it – which affect the most basic rights of all Scientologists – but it intends to denounce the serious abuses that have marked these 18 years of judicial harassment.”
The trial, at Brussels' Palais de Justice, arises from two separate cases that were eventually merged. But it has only come to trial after a legal battle lasting 18 years.
The first affair dates back to 1997, when the authorities opened an investigation into possible fraud and breach of trust after former members filed complaints against the movement.
Police raided Scientology offices in Brussels on September 30, 1999, as French officers carried out a similar operation in Paris at the request of the Belgian authorities.
In 2007, prosecutors brought charges against several individuals and two Scientology organisations: the Church of Scientology in Belgium and its European Office for Public Affairs and Human Rights. Both are registered as non-profit associations.
But the case got tied up in procedural wrangling at Belgium's Chambre de Conseil, which decides whether or not there is enough evidence to bring the case to court.
The second investigation was launched
after Actiris, the Brussels regional employment office, filed a
complaint in 2008 alleging that Scientology had used fake job ads to
try to recruit members.
On April 11, 2008, police raided Scientology's Brussels offices in Uccle, a suburb of the Belgian capital, seizing hundreds of documents.
The charges going to trial include allegations of fraud; extortion; criminal organisation; forgery and the use of false documents; violation of privacy; and the illegal practice of medicine.
This last charge concerns Scientology's Purification Rundown, a cure it administers, which some medical professionals have criticised as potentially dangerous.
The programme, devised by Scientology's founder L. Ron Hubbard, combines aerobic exercise and long sessions in a sauna with the consumption of high doses of minerals and vitamins.
Trial is "incomprehensible and unacceptable": Scientology
Over the years, Scientology's lawyers
have filed a series of legal challenges to the way the investigation
has been conducted.
In 2007, the Church of Scientology in Belgium argued in court that prosecutors' public statements on the affair had not respected the presumption of innocence, prejudicing any future trial. When the Belgian courts rejected their arguments in 2008, they went to the European Court of Human Rights.
In September 2013, the Strasbourg court ruled that their bid was premature because they could not say their trial had been prejudiced before the event. A court statement also said that Scientology had relied too heavily on press reports of prosecutors' statements, adding: “...it was highly possible that those articles did not accurately reflect the nuances of the remarks in question”.
Scientology tried to stop the prosecution on a variety of procedural grounds. But on December 10, 2014, Belgium's top court, the Cour de Cassation, rejected their arguments, clearing the way for a trial.
In a statement Friday, Scientology spokesman Eric Roux said it was “incomprehensible and unacceptable” that Belgium's Scientology community was being subjected to such discriminatory treatment “when they only aspire to one thing: to practise their faith freely and peacefully.
“Scientologists have no doubt that the court will do its job with integrity and foresight so that, just as in Italy or in Spain, where we have been the target of the same campaign of accusations that proved to be false, their good faith is recognised as the lies told about them disappear in the light of the truth.
“Scientologists in Belgium form a community of honest citizens, workers, contributing to Belgian society, and want to see their right to freedom of conscience and religion and non-discrimination respected,” he added.
The trial is scheduled to run over 13 court dates up to November 27, before judges at the 69th chambre du tribunal correctionnel de Bruxelles.
If either of the Scientology organisations is found guilty, it would be first time the movement had been convicted in Belgium.
In 2009, a Paris court fined two Scientology organisations hundreds of thousands of euros for organised fraud.
France's highest court confirmed the convictions in 2013 and in 2014 the European Court of Human Rights rejected a bid by Scientology to challenge them there.
Photo of Brussels' Palais de Justice by Jonny Jacobsen