A courtroom in Belgium heard final arguments on Friday in the trial of the Belgian branch of the controversial Church of Scientology over fraud and extortion allegations it vehemently denies.
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.
Lawyers said the verdict, which could see the Scientology church banned in Belgium, would land early next year, most likely in February.
In closing the seven-week trial, 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 practice their religion in Belgium,” Eric Roux, the spokesman for the group in Brussels told AFP.
The Belgian authorities launched a first investigation in 1997 after several former 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.
Federal prosecutor Christophe Caliman asked the court earlier in 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.
Championed by superstar members such as Tom Cruise and John Travolta, Scientology stirs 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.