Belgium court acquits scientology of organised crime charges

The trial of the Belgian branch of the Church of Scientology, in Brussels, Belgium on March 11, 2016.
The trial of the Belgian branch of the Church of Scientology, in Brussels, Belgium on March 11, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - A Belgian court acquitted the Church of Scientology on Friday (March 11) of charges of forming a criminal organisation, and dismissed demands that it should close its Belgian branch and European headquarters.

Prosecutors had accused the church's Belgian branch, its European headquarters and a number of church members of forming a criminal organisation over alleged fraud, unlawful medical practice, extortion and invasion of privacy.

They had called for it to be disbanded, along with prison terms for the members on trial.

However, presiding judge Yves Regimont dismissed all the charges against the church, which says it has been unfairly hounded for years by Belgian authorities.

"This was a religious case and nothing else. If you've said that you've said it all," Pascal Vanderveeren, lawyer for the church, told reporters after Friday's ruling.

Scientology, dismissed as a manipulative cult by its critics, has fought a series of legal battles across the world to have itself recognised as a religion.

The Belgian trial began in October 2015 after nearly 20 years of investigations, grouping together complaints from former members who sought to reclaim money from the church and the Brussels labour department, which said the scientologists had posted false job offers in the hope of finding new recruits.

Security was particularly tight for Friday's verdict, with a heavy police presence and frisking of the public on entry to the courtroom, after demonstrators had threatened to disturb the sitting.