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Yoga guru charged with subjecting followers to sexual exploitation

PARIS (AP) — A 71-year-old Romanian yoga guru and 14 others were handed preliminary charges by a Paris magistrate on a raft of counts linked to an international ring that for years allegedly subjected followers seeking enlightenment to sexual exploitation.

The Paris prosecutor’s office said that six of the 15 people interrogated were ordered held on Friday, while nine others were freed but under judicial surveillance.

Gregorian Bivolaru was among two of the six handed a string of preliminary charges that included human trafficking in an organized band, kidnapping, sequestration or arbitrary detention of numerous people along with rape and “abusing the weakness of a group” via psychological or physical subjection. None of the 15 was named but a judicial source said that Bivolaru was among the two facing the longest list of charges.

A trimmed-down version of the preliminary charges were handed to the other suspects. An investigation will now determine whether the preliminary charges lead to a formal indictment and a trial.

The arrest this past week of Bivolaru and 40 others in the Paris region ended a six-year manhunt in several countries. The police unit that combats sect-related crimes freed 26 people described by authorities as sect victims who had been housed in deplorable conditions.

Accounts from alleged victims detailed in the French media portray Bivolaru as a guru who coerced women into sexual relationships under the guise of spiritual elevation in a career spanning decades and continents.

Bivolaru’s group, initially known as MISA, for Movement for Spiritual Integration Toward the Absolute, was later known as the Atman yoga federation. Non-consensual sexual activities under the facade of tantric yoga teachings were allegedly at the heart of the organisation, according to a French judicial official who spoke last week on condition of anonymity because the person, like other judicial officials, wasn’t authorized to discuss the ongoing investigation.

The group’s “ashrams” were centres for indoctrination and sexual exploitation disguised as spiritual enlightenment, according to the official. One appeared to be exclusively dedicated to satisfying the desires of the leader, with women transported there from elsewhere, the official added.

MISA said in a statement on its website in Romanian that Bivolaru had been targeted by media campaigns since the 1990s to “discredit and slander” him, calling any charges against him in France “absurd accusations.”

The Atman federation meanwhile described the situation to The Associated Press in an email as a “witch hunt,” disclaiming responsibility for the private lives of students and teachers at its member schools. It also highlighted that some member schools had won cases at the European Court of Human Rights, demonstrating human rights violations against them.

The alleged sexual abuses spanned Europe. In 2017, Finland’s National Bureau of Investigation issued an international arrest warrant for him for alleged aggravated human trafficking. Bivolaru had obtained political refugee status in Sweden in 2005, which delayed legal proceedings in Romania. In France, yoga retreats were held in and around Paris and in the southern Alpes-Maritimes region. However, it was not immediately clear how long he had been in France.

Romanian guru Gregorian Bivolaru is escorted to a vehicle, after a hearing at the Romanian Police headquarters in Bucharest, Romania on August 24, 2016. PHOTO: AP
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