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PARIS (Reuters) - A Paris court on Tuesday fined the French branch of the Church of Scientology a total of 600,000 euros ($902,200) after finding it guilty of fraud but allowed the group to continue operating in France.
When the hearing opened, there were expectations that the court could order the group to be banned in France but due to a mixup over a law that passed in parliament just before the start of the trial in May, that option was ruled out.
The legislation has since been changed back to allow the dissolution of an organisation found guilty of fraud but because of the timing of the case, there was no question of forcing the Church of Scientology to be wound up.
"It is very regrettable that the law quietly changed before the trial," Georges Fenech, head of the Inter-ministerial Unit to Monitor and Fight Cults, told television station France 24.
"The system has now been put in place by parliament and it is certain that in the future, if new offences are committed, a ban could eventually be pronounced," he said.
The court handed down suspended prison sentences ranging from 10 months to two years and fines of 5,000 euros to 30,000 euros to four leaders of the group in France.
"This is an important and historic decision because it is the first time that Scientology has been found guilty of involvement in organised fraud," Olivier Morice, one of the lawyers for the civil parties to the case told reporters.
The case was brought by two former members who said they were cajoled into spending 21,000 euros and 49,500 euros on personality tests, vitamin cures, sauna sessions and "purification packs".
Scientology, which is officially considered a sect in France, denies fraud and is expected to appeal.
Registered as a religion in the United States, with celebrity members such as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology enjoys no such legal protection in France, where it has faced accusations of being a money-making cult.
The trial, which began on May 25, centres on complaints made in the late 1990s.
The prosecutor had recommended that the Paris court dissolve the church's French arm.
But it emerged during the trial that the Church of Scientology could not be dissolved in France even if it had been convicted of fraud, due to an amendment to legislation which passed unnoticed just before the trial began.
Scientology has faced numerous setbacks in France, with members convicted of fraud in Lyon in 1997 and Marseille in 1999. In 2002, a court fined it for violating privacy laws and said it could be dissolved if involved in similar cases.
Scientology says it has gone to court in many countries to uphold the right to freedom of religion.
(Writing by Sophie Taylor)
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