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His dedicated followers call his water-birthing methods revolutionary - making babies smarter and stronger. Nonbelievers call it child abuse.

Igor Charkovsky, a former gym teacher and self-described "father of sea births," left his native Russia three years ago under threat of prosecution for his controversial practices.Last month, he was charged with sexually assaulting two women in Massachusetts, where he has been lecturing, and holding workshops and "healing" sessions. The women had independently sought his healing methods, police said.

Charkovsky, 59, pleaded not guilty and is free on $1,000 bail.

He says newborns should be reprogrammed in body and instinct: delivered under water, swung in the air, contorted yoga-style and plunged back into the water. The so-called "re-birthing" sessions take place in a hot tub.

Charkovsky, who has no medical training, also teaches ways to cure physical and emotional ills through deep breathing.

Judith Lavallee and Edward Waite conduct sessions with Charkovsky at Lavallee's home. Both stand by their colleague, contending that the women misinterpreted the way Charkovsky was touching them.

"His biggest problem is his language barrier," said Lavallee, a nurse at Worcester Hospital. "He speaks just a little English. . . . Sometimes he doesn't get his full point across."

Waite called him an "excellent, principled man" who's "on the frontier of knowledge."

For Charkovsky, water is more an endurance enhancer, at birth and later in life, than a pain-management tool.

Though this is the first time Charkovsky has been charged with a crime, his experimental methods have made him a controversial figure for years.

Barbara Harper, a midwife and founder of the Global Maternal/-Child Health Association, observed Charkovsky in Moscow in 1988 and said his techniques were akin to child abuse.

"Igor would take a newborn baby and force them into the water with the baby screaming and crying and not relent," Harper said from her Wilsonville, Ore., office. "He was putting babies into positions, like yoga, with arm behind the back and leg over the head and things like that. Once you see it, you say `this is ridiculous."'