Scientologists may be facing their most daunting court case yet, and all it took was for someone to stop calling them a cult. After a years long legal battle, federal prosecutors in Belgium now believe their investigation is complete enough to charge the Church of Scientology and its leaders as a criminal organization on charges of extortion, fraud, privacy breaches, and the illegal practice of medicine. "The decision follows years of investigation that was triggered by a complaint by the Labour Mediation Service in the Brussels Region. Labour mediators were unhappy with a number of labour contracts," reads the report from Flanders News. "The matter ended up on the desk of examining magistrate Michel Claise, who ordered raids on Church of Scientology premises in 2008. During the raids police managed to seize a wealth of evidence," they add. And (with the help of Google translate) Belgian newspapers De Tijd and L'Echo are both reporting that the Belgian federal attorney is now seeking prosecution.
Multiple reports and the group's legal history point to one key factor here: The Belgian government won't charge Scientology for being a cult — authorities are focusing on prosecuting it as a criminal organization. Which is a new twist, as most of the group's many court battles over the years have focused on establishing its legitimacy as a religion. Scientology's well-funded legal team engaged in expensive cases like the one against against Time in 1991 and won its battle with the Cult Awareness Network in 1996, but the Belgian authorities have been battling Scientologists since 2007, when the country tried to label the group with cult status in a move that even received blowback from the U.S. State Department.
The Church of Scientology houses its European headquarters in Brussels, so a ban in Belgium could be crippling to the group — and authorities there seem to know it. One of the more similar recent cases against came in 2009, when the French chapter of Scientology was convicted of fraud by a Paris court and fined nearly $900,000. "But the judges did not ban the church entirely, as the prosecution had demanded, saying that a change in the law prevented such an action for fraud," reported The New York Times's Steven Erlanger. So the French chapter got saved by a legal wrinkle, but the Belgian prosecutors don't appear to be backing down.
Neither the federal prosecution nor the Church of Scientology have made public comments since word of the impending charges surfaced early Friday.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.