Leaders of the Church of Scientology from eight nations have been arrested in Spain on suspicion of extortion, forgery and tax evasion, it was disclosed Monday.
Heber Jentzsch of Los Angeles, president of the Church of Scientology International, was among the 69 people detained Sunday at a Scientology congress at a luxury hotel in downtown Madrid. Twenty of those arrested were released Monday after authorities determined they were not involved in running the organization, according to EFE, the Spanish news agency.
Among those being held were Scientology leaders from the United States, Britain, Portugal, Denmark, Venezuela, Switzerland, Italy and Spain.
Police searched 26 of the group’s offices across Spain on Sunday, shutting two of them down for a few hours, and seizing bundles of documents.
Scientology’s lawyer, Jose Luis Chamorro, said evidence presented against the group was shallow and out of context.
The Church of Scientology was founded by the late science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. Its activities in Spain center on a drug rehabilitation program known as Narconon and a spiritual group called the Civil Dianetics Assn.
The police action culminated nine months of undercover investigation during which 30 telephone taps were installed, said Examining Magistrate Jose Maria Vasquez Honrubia.
Spanish tax inspectors believe the organization illegally funneled money to the United States and Denmark, did not make payments to Spain’s social security system and owed money to businessmen who supplied Narconon centers in Spain, according to the Spanish news agency.
Vasquez Honrubia said police began the investigation after about 40 complaints were filed in Spanish courts, including one for abduction of a youth.
Those arrested, the magistrate added, also face charges of kidnaping, coercion, failure to meet social security payments and illegal association. He said more arrests were likely.
He did not specify what type of forgery and fraud the organizers are alleged to have engaged in. But news reports said at least one fraud charge stemmed from Narconon’s attempts to persuade its drug-addict clients to join the Church of Scientology as part of their treatment.
The magistrate said the group made members pay progressively larger fees for Scientology courses and threatened people who wanted to leave the organization.
The group was registered as a nonprofit organization, Vasquez Honrubia added, but documents showed profits of $666,000 in Spain alone in 1986.
“The real god of this organization is money,” he told reporters.
The magistrate said the group’s four Narconon centers for treatment of drug addicts in Spain were run by unqualified staff in poor conditions of hygiene.
Boston attorney Earle C. Cooley, Scientology’s U.S. national trial counsel, told The Times Monday that he did not know what allegations were being investigated by Spanish authorities, or the scope of the undercover probe.
“I know nothing about wiretaps,” Cooley said.
But he said the allegations, as reported by the news media, “look on the face of them as if they are trumped up.”
Cooley said Jentzsch had been speaking Sunday afternoon to an international gathering of Scientologists when police raided the hotel “like storm troopers” and hauled the leaders off to jail.
By early Tuesday in Madrid, Cooley said, Jentzsch had still not been questioned by police or formally charged with a crime.
“We are mustering our legal resources in Spain,” he added. “We will fight this as long as it takes.”
In Washington, the Rev. Brian Anderson, vice president of the Church of Scientology International, denounced the arrests.
“The Dianetics and Narconon organizations emphatically condemn the outrageous acts of flagrant injustice committed by the judge’s instructions,” Anderson said in a statement.
He said that “Narconon in Spain is the most effective organization in handling drug addiction” and that it “saved thousands of Spaniards from the devastating effects of drug abuse over the last few years.”
“Our organizations are here to stay and expand,” he said, adding that a new facility is set to open in southern Spain. The church operates in about 30 countries.
In 1986 and again last June, Spain’s Justice Ministry rejected a petition by the church for accreditation as a legitimate religious institution on the grounds that the group’s activities “negatively affected public health.”
In 1984, the U.S. government began an investigation of Hubbard’s tax returns after the Internal Revenue Service said it suspected that millions of dollars in church funds had been transferred to Scientology’s founder. Scientologists said the FBI, the CIA, the IRS and other government agencies took part in a conspiracy to harass the organization in violation of its religious freedom.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering the case.