In this April 13, 2018 courtroom sketch Keith Raniere, second from right, leader of the secretive group NXIVM, attends a hearing at court in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Picture: AP

New York - The witness, who was identified in court only as Sylvie and who testified for several hours, described being recruited by a “master,” feeling compelled to allow the leader of the group, Keith Raniere, to perform oral sex on her and narrowly avoiding being branded with his initials.

Raniere, 58, who has been indicted on several charges, including racketeering conspiracy, extortion, forced labour and sex trafficking, co-founded Nxivm (pronounced Nex-e-um) as a self-help organisation in the 1990s. 

Prosecutors, however, have said that he used the organization to exert control over the lives of his followers, including women who joined a clandestine sorority - known as DOS - within the group.

Women who joined that group were referred to as “slaves” and were obliged to turn over to other members, known as “masters,” compromising or embarrassing material. This “collateral” would ensure their unquestioning compliance, prosecutors have said.

Sylvie said that soon after joining DOS, she was directed by her “master,” Monica Duran, to ask Raniere to photograph her and “go along with whatever else happened.”

Sylvie said that she met Raniere, who was known within Nxivm as “Vanguard,” inside a house where he told her to undress. He then performed oral sex on her. Even though she did not want any sexual contact with him, she testified that she felt powerless to object, adding, “That was a command from my master and that was my role as a slave.”

After the oral sex, Sylvie said that Raniere told her, “Now you’re part of the inner circle.”

“All around that time I felt so much shame about this cult thing,” she testified, her voice breaking. “Everything was just lies and deceit and darkness.”

Later, while being questioned by a defense lawyer, Sylvie acknowledged that she told Raniere after the encounter that she loved him.

Sylvie, who grew up in Britain, came to the United States when she was 18 and lived on a farm where she took care of horses belonging to Clare Bronfman, the Seagram’s liquor heiress who was a high-ranking member of Nxivm.

Over the next decade, the group exerted a pull on her, according to her testimony. At one point, she said, Raniere suggested she leave a job she had obtained with Goldman Sachs. Bronfman also told her she would have to quit a running club she was part of.

Sylvie testified that she joined a Nxivm-related group called Jness that she said espoused, among other things, that women were victimizers who liked to pose as victims.

“I started to hate the fact that I was a woman,” she said.

She said she provided collateral in the form of a letter where she claimed to her parents that she was a prostitute.

In her roughly two years with DOS, Sylvie said, she followed any directive given to her by Duran, including the order to recruit “slaves” of her own and obtain collateral from them. 

She was also compelled by Duran, she said, to provide additional collateral of her own, including a letter that gave Duran the power to say whether or not Sylvie could have children.

The New York Times