A Paris court on Tuesday fined the French branch of the Church of Scientology a total of $955,000 Cdn after finding it guilty of fraud, but did not ban the group from operating in France.

The court convicted the Church of Scientology's French office, its library and six leaders.

Investigators said the group pressured members into paying large sums of money for questionable financial gain and used "commercial harassment" against recruits.

The court handed down prison sentences ranging from 10 months to two years and fines of $8,000 to $47,750 to four leaders of the group.

The group's French branch denied the fraud and said they would appeal the verdict.

The court could not order the Church of Scientology to shut down as prosecutors had wanted as a recent change in French law prevented an outright ban.

Court unable to dissolve group

A little-noticed legal change voted in by parliament in May barred judges from dissolving an organization convicted of fraud. Though the change has since been dropped, it was not retroactive, so the court was bound by the restrictions imposed in May.

The court said a ruling to shut down operations would likely have little effect other than to force the church to continue its activities "outside any legal framework."

The case began following the complaint from a woman who said she took out loans and spent about $32,000 on books, courses and "purification packages" after being recruited in 1998. She said when she sought reimbursement and tried to leave the group, the leadership refused. She was one of three eventual plaintiffs.

Founded in 1954 by U.S. science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, the Church of Scientology is recognized as a religion in the United States and claims a worldwide membership of 12 million.

But the movement has met with resistance in Europe, and in particular in France, where it was labelled as a cult in 1995.

With files from The Associated Press