French Anti-Cult Bill

PARIS (Reuters) - The French National Assembly on Wednesday adopted a bill to crack down on sects but a plan to make "mental manipulation" a criminal offense was dropped following fierce protests by minority religious groups.

The new law will allow courts to ban groups regarded as sects. It stipulates that banned groups which re-form under a different name can face prosecution.

It also provides for sects, as well as individual members, to be punished for fraud, illegal practice of medicine, wrongful advertising or sexual abuse.

The bill, and especially the article on "mental manipulation," or brainwashing, sparked an outcry from several groups when it first went before the French parliament in June 2000.

A spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology, which is under close scrutiny by the French authorities, said at the time that the bill would "sound the death knell for French democracy."

Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church was among other groups that denounced the bill as anti-democratic and in breach of basic human rights.

The brainwashing clause was eventually dropped after an official consultative human rights body as well as then-justice minister Elisabeth Guigou also criticized it.

The bill was devised in response to a report in February 2000 by a ministerial mission that found there were 200 sects in France, most of them well-organized.