Officials in Russia have raided 14 Church of Scientology offices in Moscow in a massive money laundering campaign initiated by the government.
The Federal Security Service (FSB) seized documents that may shed light on the Church’s illegal financial dealings in Russia.
The simultaneous raid across the two cities follow the November 2015 court decision in Moscow that ruled that the Church of Scientology did not comply with federal laws on freedom of religion, as it used its trademark for financial gain.
The ruling backed by the Justice Ministry said that since the Church of Scientology had registered its name as a US trademark, it can’t call itself a religious entity. As the Russian court banned the activities of the Moscow branch, the organization threatened to appeal the decision claiming that it violates the rights of its parishioners.
Raids on Tuesday were carried out as part of the ongoing investigation into the organization’s alleged money laundering activities, and in particular into one member of the community, who is being probed over allegations of real estate fraud, that amounted to 130 million rubles ($2 million), according to RIA sources.
In April, authorities detained Ekaterina Zaborskikh for allegedly stealing large sums from apartment buyers in St. Petersburg. Investigators believe that between 2012 and 2014 Zaborskikh through a construction company promised to build “affordable castles,” which were never delivered. Instead, the money was redirected through the Church of Scientology as donations. Detectives believe that some of the stolen funds were transferred to the organization’s account in Moscow.
Looking for more evidence into the financial activity of the group, on Tuesday the FSB “conducted simultaneous searches” at 14 addresses in Moscow and St Petersburg.
During the raids the security services seized “objects and documents” confirming that the church’s agents in St. Petersburg offered goods and services in violation of Russian law, the FSB said in a press release. The property seized in the raids includes financial documents, hard drives and notebooks of organization members, a source in the security service told RIA.
Such illegal activity, the FSB said, was carried out at an inter-regional level. While the investigation continues, authorities have launched a criminal case into the “illegal entrepreneurial activity” of the church’s members.
Russian news agencies reported that a number of members of the church were brought in for questioning. At least 10 were reportedly detained in St. Petersburg.
Scientologists receive revenue by providing “consultation services” in fields such as education, “without any official registration,” therefore evading taxes, a source in the security services told RIA.
Spokesperson for the Church, Nataliya Alekseeva, has condemned the raids, saying the Scientologists are “outraged by the position of the investigating authorities.” The representative stressed that the organization is working “for the good of the country” by sending out its members to tackle the social problems of the country.
The Scientology church was founded in the United States in 1954 by science-fiction writer L Ron Hubbard. Over the years, the organization has attracted the rich and the powerful, including movie stars Tom Cruise and John Travolta. The organization was awarded the status of religious organization in the US in 1993 and has gained various levels of recognition, enjoying tax exemption status across the world.