"Whether you think I'm the devil or not, the justice process has to be examined," the incarcerated leader of the controversial group said
Keith Raniere NXIVM Cult
Keith Raniere
| Credit: Nxivm video/ YouTube

Nxivm founder Keith Raniere is breaking his silence.

In an interview with Dateline on Friday, the 60-year-old spoke out for the first time since his arrest on federal sex trafficking and forced labor charges two years ago, proclaiming his innocence against the crimes he has been found guilty of.

"One of the things that's most important in our country is the justice system," the leader of the controversial self-improvement group said. "And although, you know, people can hate me and do, and think I'm an odious type of a character — you know, awful, actually — both the devil and a saint should be able to get the exact same treatment under our justice system."

When asked if intends to make a statement of innocence at his Oct. 27 sentencing, Raniere replied, "Yes, I am innocent. And although it is — this is a horrible tragedy, with many, many people being hurt, I think the main thrust of this has been the oppression."

"But really a different issue, which is hard for me to express — there is a horrible injustice here," he continued. "And whether you think I'm the devil or not, the justice process has to be examined."

Though he maintains his innocence, Raniere admitted that he "clearly participated" in behavior that hurt people in the past.

"I apologize for my participation in all of this pain and suffering," he said. "I've clearly participated. I've been the leader of the community."

Prosecutors described Nxivm as a sexual pyramid scheme involving sex slaves, with Raniere at the top. The organization has long marketed itself as a group that empowers people and helps them manage emotional trauma, but prosecutors said it has a darker side built on coercion and manipulation.

According to CNN, U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said that “Raniere, who portrayed himself as a savant and a genius, was in fact a massive manipulator, a con man, and the crime boss of a cult-like organization involved in sex trafficking, child pornography, extortion, compelled abortions, branding, degradation and humiliation.”

india oxenberg and Allison mack
Actress Allison Mack Hearing in Nxivm Case
| Credit: JUSTIN LANE/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Investigators said Raniere, who was known as “Vanguard” to his followers, occupied the top of a pyramid called DOS, with tiers of female “slaves,” each of whom could become a “master” to slaves beneath them.

One former devotee described Nxivm as a “cult,” and the group has been the subject of scrutiny from both law enforcement and journalists after it came under fire from Dynasty actress Catherine Oxenberg, whose daughter, India, joined in 2011. (India has since left the group.)

Amy Luke/Getty

A criminal complaint against Raniere obtained by PEOPLE outlined how authorities believe the women in DOS were forced to turn over "collateral," which were identified as potentially-damaging personal information or materials — such as nude photographs — with which they later could be blackmailed.

The women victimized by Raniere believed their "collateral" would be released if they did not engage in sexual activity with the Nxivm leader, prosecutors said.

Raniere was convicted of racketeering and racketeering conspiracy, sex trafficking, attempted sex trafficking and sex trafficking conspiracy, forced labor conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy on June 19, 2019 following a jury trial. He previously pleaded not guilty on all seven charges.

RELATED VIDEO: Catherine & India Oxenberg — Surviving NXIVM

Other prominent Nxivm members who previously pleaded guilty to federal charges and are currently awaiting sentencing include former Nxivm president Nancy Salzman and her daughter Lauren Salzman, Nxivm bookkeeper Kathy Russell and former Smallville actress Allison Mack.

In September, Seagram's heiress Clare Bronfman was sentenced to 81 months in prison for conspiracy to conceal and harbor aliens for financial gain and fraudulent use of personal identification information in her involvement with Nxivm.

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.