Drug rehab cult sweeps the East

STANDING with heads thrown back and arms outstretched, four men in white tunics quiver uncontrollably under the light of bright arc lamps.

Eyes closed, bodies arched, they mutter and groan, pouring with sweat. Each seems locked in a trance, as if battling an inner demon.

This startling scene is the climax of a 30-day treatment programme to cure drug addicts devised by Jenishbek Nazaraliev, a controversial doctor who seems to have no problem in luring thousands of grateful, fee-paying pilgrims to his clinic in Kyrgyzstan, the dry and dusty former Soviet state trapped between China to the south and Kazakhstan to the north.

A millionaire, whose methods have provoked alarm among Western experts, he claims that a startling 91% of his patients do not return to drugs in the first year after treatment.

The doctor’s unique programme - a potent mix of conventional pharmacology and traditional healing inspired by Central Asian shamanism - is tempting addicts to the small town of Besh Kungei from America, Germany, Israel and across the former Soviet Union.

As the latest batch squirm and judder under the arc lights, a team of experts led by Nazaraliev circles around them, darting back and forward like hyenas.

"Free yourself from the devil inside you," cries one, poking his patient and tugging his hair. "Go on! Go on! Go on! You are full of power. There is no force on earth that can outperform you and make you take drugs."

Finally, the four patients - all heroin addicts - collapse exhausted on to soft mats that lie behind them, and are scooped up by orderlies who take them to beds in an ante room.

Moments later, Nazaraliev, 43, sinks into an armchair in his office, wiping perspiration from his shaven head with a handkerchief. Hard work maybe, but leavened by the knowledge that there’s another £12,000 in the bank.

Not that money, of course, enters into Nazaraliev’s thinking. "What you have just witnessed is what we call stress-energetic psychotherapy, or SEPT," he explains. "This psychotherapy is aimed at regenerating the patient’s ego, giving him self assurance and making him believe he is strong.

"We provoke him to become shaky and urge him to get rid of the cells that persuaded him to take drugs; to push all those cells out of the body; to destroy them."

Curing and rehabilitating users of heroin and other opiates is a huge and growing concern in the former Soviet states of Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.

The UN reported earlier this year a burgeoning drug addiction and Aids crisis in the region as traffickers increasingly smuggle Afghan opium and heroin through Central Asia to markets in Russia and Europe.

While treatment of drug addicts in the West focuses on a combination of medication to suppress drug-craving and behavioural therapies, methadone remains illegal in most Central Asia countries, and services for drug users are sparse.

Some addicts - or, at least, those who can afford it - have turned to the mysterious ways of Dr Nazaraliev.

Since 1991, when it was founded, more than 17,000 drug addicts and alcoholics have passed through his five-storey private clinic, the Nazaraliev Medical Centre in Bishkek, capital of Kyrgyzstan. Each pays £3,100 for the privilege.

The centre claims that an astonishing 91% of heroin, cocaine and synthetic drugs users, and 86% of alcoholics rid themselves of addiction for a year or more after treatment.

Western experts are suspicious of the guru’s statistics. One UN source in the region said: "All the medical professionals I know are sceptical of Nazaraliev’s claims. He is a businessman, after all."

Yet Nazaraliev is a national celebrity and dismisses detractors who have branded him a charlatan with a wave of the hand.

"When I saw that people in Russia labelled me a shaman I laughed, because they were actually paying me a compliment. Shamanism is the beginning for all forms of psychotherapy."

Nazaraliev - a trained medical doctor and an honorary member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences - says he draws on the experience of his ancestors who were soothsayers and hypnotists.

And he defends his use of "cocktails" of up to 100 different medicines, some of which, he boasts, "could fell an elephant".

His treatment programme begins with several sessions of "coma therapy" that puts patients into a state of unconsciousness using doses of atropine and other drugs, a method that has alarmed some observers because of the potential side effects, including hallucinations and amnesia.

Addicts then start a process of rehabilitation and reintegration into society that begins with sessions of massage, acupuncture and hours spent in a sauna, sweating off toxins.

His face pale and coated in a sheen of perspiration, Alexander Engelman, 25, a heroin addict from Germany, said he had absolute faith in Nazaraliev.

"My yearning for heroin disappeared almost immediately after the first coma sessions," he said. "This place is so much better than clinics I went to at home. The doctors are meticulous about explaining what’s going on."

In the final stages of treatment, patients are moved to a sanatorium and recreation clinic in the hills a few miles away. Here they go walking, take helicopter trips into the mountains or ride in Nazaraliev’s £65,000 Hummer four-wheel-drive.

To complete their treatment, they must choose "stress therapy" or a new and striking alternative. In this they make a pilgrimage to the slopes of a mountain near the rehabilitation centre called Tashtar-Ata, which is sacred according to local tradition.

Each pilgrim carries a rock up the mountain which he then casts down on a growing pile to represent his triumph over addiction. Once the stone is hurled, the pilgrim strips off his clothes and sets fire to them. "It’s symbolic," said Nazaraliev. "He burns to ashes the evils of his former life."