Tokyo--As new evidence seems to implicate the secretive Aum Shinrikyoin case of terrorism, murder and kidnapping the sect's leaders have found an unlikely supporter: an officer of the American Bar Association.
Barry Fisher, a lawyer in Los Angeles who said he is chairman of the bar association's subcommittee on religious freedom, traveled to Tokyo with three other Americans [including J. Gordon Melton] --Aum paid the bill--to warn that the Japanese police were threatening the group's religious freedom.
The Americans said Monday that they spent three days in Japan talking to cult officials and others, but were not permitted to visit the sect's chemical factories or its headquarters campus.
The American held a pair of news conferences to suggest that the sect was innocent of criminal charges and was a victim of excessive police pressure.
The sect has emerged as the chief suspect in the gas attack on the Tokyo subways on March 20, that left 12 dead. The police are also said to be investigating whether the sect is linked to a 1994 poison gas case that killed seven, and to the shooting of the national police chief who was supervising the investigation of the cult.
One of the Americans, James Lewis, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases. He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum.
According to press reports here, Mr. Fisher of the Bar Association subcommittee called on the Japanese police to resist the temptation "to crush a religion and deny freedom." The fear of terrorism in Japan "is being used by some as an excuse to strengthen police powers."
Mr. Lewis said it was "outrageous" that some children had been removed by the police from an Aum dormitory where they were housed apart from their parents. He also said he was not familiar with details of how the children were treated at the cult.
The children of Aum members have said they were permitted two meals a day and four hours of sleep a night. They did not go to school, were not permitted to contact friends or relatives who were not cult members and were not permitted to play outside because the cult's leader said his enemies were attacking the group with poison gas.
The Americans said the sect had invited them to visit after they expressed concern to Aum's New York branch about religious freedom in Japan. The said their airfare, hotel bills and "basic expenses" were paid by the cult.
In the eight weeks since the Tokyo attack, the police have seized thousands of documents and literally tons of physical evidence from sect buildings. They have arrested about 150 cult members, most on minor charges. But they have not yet arrested or charged a single person with the subway crime.
That seems to reflect the standard police procedure here of bringing criminal charges only after they have enough evidence to make a conviction certain.