Paris - A French court upheld fraud charges and a €600 000 fine against the Church of Scientology in France on Thursday for cajoling members into spending tens of thousands of euros on personality tests, vitamin cures and sauna sessions.
Rejecting the Church's appeal against a 2009 ruling, the court fined the French branches of the US-based organisation €600 000 for "organised fraud" and gave four of its leaders suspended jail sentences of up to two years.
Five plaintiffs in the case, which dates back to 1998, accused the Church of persuading them to spend tens of thousands of euros on the personality tests, vitamin cures, sauna sessions and "purification packs".
The ruling that such activities amounted to fraud deals a symbolic blow to the Church, which has achieved recognition as a religion in the United States and other countries but not in France, where a parliamentary report in 1995 classified it as a "dangerous cult".
"This is very good news for those who fight against cults and it is a serious defeat for the Church of Scientology," said Olivier Morice, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
However, Thursday's ruling will not lead to the Church of Scientology being banned from operating in France, as prosecutors had originally intended.
When the case went to trial in 2009, a change in French law that was voted shortly before a verdict briefly made it impossible to ban or dissolve a group convicted of fraud. The law has since been changed back, but a ban on the group or its dissolution cannot be enforced retroactively.
Morice said while Scientology could still operate in France, the court's ruling went to the heart of its activities and opened the door to a ban or dissolution as a possible outcome in other pending lawsuits.
In a statement, the Church called the ruling "illegal" and said it would seek to have it overturned through a final appeal to different court, which can assess whether the law was applied correctly but not re-examine evidence.
"The Church wishes that the fairness of justice such as protected by our constitution becomes a reality once again for all the citizens of our country, scientologists included," the statement said.
In 1997 and 1999, French courts convicted Scientology members of fraud, while a court fined the Church for violating privacy laws in 2002.
Founded in 1954 by science fiction writer L Ron Hubbard, the Church bases its beliefs on the study of his 1950 book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health and claims a global reach, with millions of members in 165 nations including 45 000 in France.
The Church has fought lawsuits around the world since its founding, both to fend off accusations of fraud or manipulation and to seek legal recognition as a religion.
Portugal, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Sweden and Spain are among countries to grant Scientology protection under religious laws.