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InterviewSpectacular simultaneous SWAT raids on Romanian yoga centers in France: Fact checking

Spectacular simultaneous SWAT raids on Romanian yoga centers in France: Fact checking

Operation Villiers-sur-Marne: Testimony

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Willy Fautre
Willy Fautrehttps://www.hrwf.eu
Willy Fautré, former chargé de mission at the Cabinet of the Belgian Ministry of Education and at the Belgian Parliament. He is the director of Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF), an NGO based in Brussels that he founded in December 1988. His organization defends human rights in general with a special focus on ethnic and religious minorities, freedom of expression, women’s rights and LGBT people. HRWF is independent from any political movement and any religion. Fautré has carried out fact-finding missions on human rights in more than 25 countries, including in perilous regions such as in Iraq, in Sandinist Nicaragua or in Maoist held territories of Nepal. He is a lecturer in universities in the field of human rights. He has published many articles in university journals about relations between state and religions. He is a member of the Press Club in Brussels. He is a human rights advocate at the UN, the European Parliament and the OSCE.

Operation Villiers-sur-Marne: Testimony

Operation Villiers-sur-Marne: Testimony

On 28 November 2023, just after 6 a.m., a SWAT team of around 175 policemen wearing black masks, helmets, and bullet-proof vests, simultaneously descended on eight separate houses and apartments in and around Paris but also in Nice, brandishing semi-automatic rifles. They smashed in the entrance doors and ran up and down the stairs, shouting orders.

These searched places were used by practitioners of yoga connected with MISA yoga school in Romania for spiritual retreats. On that fateful morning, most of them were still in bed. A few were in the kitchen boiling water for herbal tea. The masked police handcuffed a number of them, made them stand outside without coats or shoes in the freezing courtyard, then took them by bus to the police station.

Results of this vast operation: a few dozens of people were arrested, 15 of whom – 11 men and 4 women, all of Romanian nationality – were indicted for “trafficking in human beings”, “forcible confinement” and “abuse of vulnerability”, in organized gang.

Gregorian Bivolaru (72), one of the founders and the spiritual leader of MISA, was among the arrested people but in his case, he was wanted by Finland under the accusation of sexual abuse of Finnish women in France several years ago. In the framework of a research paper titled “The Controversies Around Natha Yoga Center in Helsinki: Background, Causes, and Context”, late Prof. Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University, Falun, Sweden) solidly investigated the allegations against Bivolaru in Finland (pp 20, 21, 27).

As long as a court decision has not confirmed the said accusations, Gregorian Bivolaru must continue to enjoy the presumption of innocence, as any ordinary citizen or famous public personality.

No woman interrogated in the framework of the SWAT operation on 23 November 2023 has filed a complaint against him.

Since the raid, Bivolaru and five other people have remained in pretrial detention in France.

Human Rights Without Frontiers contacted Ms C. C. (*), a MISA practitioner for 20 years. She was at the yoga center of Villiers-sur-Marne at the time of the raid. In 2002-2006, she studied at the Faculty of History and Philosophy from Babeș-Bolyai University, Cluj-Napoca (Rumania). In 2005-2006, she was a journalist at the national daily Romania Liberă. Here is her testimony about the SWAT operation:

Q.: You have been practicing yoga in the MISA group in Romania for 20 years but while you were in a spiritual retreat in Villiers-sur-Marne, there was a Swat operation against the group. Can you tell me what happened?

A.: I have been a lot of times in France for such retreats since 2010 and I like it very much. That is why last year I had planned to stay for two months again in Villiers-sur-Marne, from late September until the end of November. I booked a flight to Paris and friends picked me up at the airport to take me to the yoga center.

In early morning, a SWAT team made a spectacular entry in our center where dozens of yoga practitioners were hosted for their retreat. The policemen put everything upside down, creating an awful mess and even breaking a lot of things.

In my case, they took away my bags, my papers, my phone, my tablet, my computer, an envelope with 1000 EUR and my wallet with about 200 EUR. Four months later, I still have not been given my money back and my material. It was freezing in my room because the door was open and I was just in pyjama. The officers took me and many others to the police station.

Q.: What happened at the police station?

A.: First of all, I must say I was just wearing my pyjama, a coat and a pair of street shoes. When we arrived at the police station, nobody explained me anything about the procedure, access to food and water or other basic things. I often needed to drink but only got a very small plastic glass of water. There was also misunderstanding about the food. They put me in a cold cell with a concrete floor. On the bed, there was a thin mattress and I just got one thin sheet. There was no toilet in the cell, I could not wash in the morning or brush my teeth.

Every time I needed to go to the bathroom, I had to wave at the internal surveillance camera but quite often I had to wait for one or two hours before I was being taken care of. The toilet could not be closed properly and a policeman was standing outside.

I was told I was suspect of complicity of rape and trafficking. I wanted to be assisted by a lawyer but they answered it was impossible because too many people had been arrested and after two hours they could start the interrogation if no lawyer was available.

On the second day of my detention, they took my fingerprint and my photo. During the interrogation, it was clear that they wanted me to say I was playing an important role in MISA but I was not. They released me at 9.30pm but first, I had to sign a release form which did not mention any list of seized items or the amounts of confiscated money. Unfortunately, I did not get a copy of it.

Without money and any telephone, I was left outside the police station in that cold late November night for almost 9 hours, until 6am, when I finally could reach someone who could help me.

Q.: Franck Dannerolle, the head of the Central Office for the repression of violence against people (OCRVP) in charge of the investigation, was quoted by some French newspapers as saying that the yoga practitioners were “housed in difficult conditions, with significant promiscuity, no privacy.” (**) Can you tell me more about your living conditions in Villiers-sur-Marne?

A.:  It is not true at all. In my case, I had chosen to live in a small comfortable pavilion (about 7 square meters) outside the main building because I wanted to practice my yoga retreat alone and meditate in silence, sometimes without sleeping or eating for 24 hours.

2024 04 16 10.09.52 Spectacular simultaneous SWAT raids on Romanian yoga centers in France: Fact checking
Spectacular simultaneous SWAT raids on Romanian yoga centers in France: Fact checking 3

Others had chosen to share a bedroom in the main house: 2, 3 or 4 together, men and women separately. The building belongs to Sorin Turc, a violinist who played with the Monaco orchestra and is a supporter of MISA. It is spacious and comfortable: there are enough bathrooms and showers for the yoga practitioners. There is a big room for the collective practice of yoga. There is a large kitchen with cookers, two big freezers, a drink dispenser of fruit juicers, toasters and other facilities such as washing and drying machines.

2024 04 16 10.10.38 Spectacular simultaneous SWAT raids on Romanian yoga centers in France: Fact checking
Spectacular simultaneous SWAT raids on Romanian yoga centers in France: Fact checking 4

For our own meals, we were going to a local supermarket for shopping and we were preparing our food ourselves.

If the living conditions were so bad as Dannerolle was saying, there would not be so many practitioners and I would have never come back so many times to Villiers-sur-Marne.

At the time of the raid, Christmas was in the air and lots of decoration had already been installed. Everything looked nice but after the SWAT operation, the premises were left in a desastrous mess.

Q. How comes that you joined the MISA yoga group?

A.: I am now 39 but when I was a teenager, I was, and I am still, in search of truth about the meaning of life and the existence of God. At the age of 16, I even made a retreat of two months in an Orthodox monastery and I wanted to become a nun. Then, I met the Baptists. Afterwards, Hindus and Hare Krishna followers before coming in contact with MISA yoga group. I was attracted by meditation and spirituality. I believe in God, I am Orthodox and I feel well with MISA.

About some media coverage: the presumption of guilt

A number of French media outlets went wild in the coverage of this whole affair and held their own tribunal, as some of their delusional headlines can show, although no French court has established the truth about the alleged facts at this stage:

L’homme qui a contribué à faire tomber la secte de yoga tantrique / The man who helped bring down the tantric yoga sect
Viols, lavage de cerveau, yoga tantrique: l’effrayant parcours de Gregorian Bivolaru, le gourou roumain mis en examen et écroué en France / Rape, brainwashing, tantric yoga: the frightening journey of Gregorian Bivolaru, the Romanian guru indicted and imprisoned in France.
Secte Misa : « Le gourou Bivolaru aurait pu faire de moi ce qu'il voulait » / Misa Cult: “Guru Bivolaru could have done with me what he wanted”
Viols, fuite et yoga ésotérique: qui est le gourou Gregorian Bivolaru arrêté ce mardi? / Rape, flight and esoteric yoga: who is the guru Gregorian Bivolaru arrested this Tuesday?
Agressions sexuelles sur fond de yoga tantrique : un gourou interpellé en France. “Il préférait les vierges": des victimes du gourou Bivolaru témoignent / Sexual assaults against the backdrop of tantric yoga: a guru arrested in France. "He preferred virgins": victims of guru Bivolaru testify

Two common points of all these articles. First, the authors failed to meet and interview the yoga practitioners who were arrested and detained for questioning (“garde à vue”) for up to 48 hours. Second, they echoed gossip and unproven assertions, which is not journalism and disfigures the noble image of journalism.

There are ethical standards in journalism and there is a higher authority in France responsible for ensuring they are respected.

In 2016, the media coverage of MISA issues in Romania was the object of a research paper titled “The Effect of the Persistent Media Campaign on the Public Perception – MISA & Gregorian Bivolaru Case Study” and published by the World Journal of Social Sciences and Humanities. French scholars in religious studies would be well inspired to make a comparative study about the same topic in their country.

Human Rights Without Frontiers defends freedom of the press and freedom of expression of journalists but also combats hate speech, fake news and stigmatization. Human Rights Without Frontiers defends the respect of the principle of presumption of innocence and recognizes final court decisions as the judicial truth.

(*) Out of respect for the privacy of the interviewee, we only put her initials but we have her full name and contact data.

(**) The spiritual retreat center in Villiers-sur-Marne was never accused or even suspected of unsanitary conditions. See the gallery of pictures of the place.

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