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article imageScientology to learn fate in Belgium

By Philippe Siuberski (AFP)     Mar 10, 2016 in World

A judge will on Friday deliver his verdict on whether the Belgian branch of the controversial Church of Scientology should be banned over fraud and extortion allegations.

Eleven members of the church and two affiliated bodies have been charged with fraud, extortion, running a criminal organisation and violating the right to privacy, all of which the US-based church denies.

Judge Yves Regimont is due to start reading out his judgement at 0800 GMT at the Palace of Justice in Brussels but it could take several hours for the final verdict to emerge.

The case was the subject of a seven-week trial that ended last December.

Federal prosecutor Christophe Caliman asked the court during the trial to completely dissolve the Belgian branch of the Church of Scientology and for it to face a fine.

He did not ask for its assets to be confiscated, leaving that to the judge's discretion.

The prosecutor also asked for suspended prison terms of six to 20 months for the 11 accused.

The building housing the Church of Scientology in Brussels  Belgium
The building housing the Church of Scientology in Brussels, Belgium
John Thys, AFP/File

Scientology's defence team said the charges were nothing more than an attempt to blacken its reputation.

"You can't explain an investigation this long and of such relentlessness against people who were only trying to peacefully practise their religion in Belgium," Eric Roux, the spokesman for the group in Brussels, told AFP in December.

- European scrutiny -

The Belgian authorities launched a first investigation in 1997 after several former Scientology 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 Church of Scientology community center in the neighborhood of South Los Angeles
The Church of Scientology community center in the neighborhood of South Los Angeles
Kevork Djansezian, Getty/AFP/File

Championed by superstar members such as Hollywood actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology stirs up sharp divisions -- critics decry it as a cult and a scam, while supporters say it offers much-needed spiritual support in a fast-changing world.

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.

But it has come under repeated scrutiny by authorities in several European countries, particularly in Germany.

Several German regions have mulled a ban on Scientology, while Berlin initially banned the cast of the Cruise Nazi-era movie "Valkyrie" from filming at historical locations but later relented.

A court in Spain in 2007 annulled a decision by the justice ministry to strike it from the country's register of officially recognised religions.

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