NAGANO -- Members of the Aum Supreme Truth cult tremble upon hearing about the isolation cells at one of the cult's facilities in Kisofukushimamachi, Nagano Prefecture, as their very mention evokes fears of imprisonment. In an attempt to deflect criticism, the cult, which had made efforts to expand in the past, has begun to close branches across the country beginning this month and even appears willing to change its name.
However, many are skeptical the cult has changed at all since it launched a sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, five years ago, as it has carried out a series of other crimes under instructions from its leader at headquarters in Kamikuishikimura, Yamanashi Prefecture. In addition, police were alered to the fact that the cult was keeping a female member in confinement.
At 6 a.m. Wednesday, about 200 police officers from the Metropolitan Police Department and Nagano prefectural police arrived at the cult's Renge facility in Kisofukushimamachi.
A follower on the second floor of the facility responded to a call from police, but refused to answer the door. The follower opened the door five minutes later, when an officer threatened to use a crowbar to break it down, and police stormed the facility.
According to officers from the joint headquarters of the two police forces, the cells in the facility are referred to as sanctuaries, but are in fact prison cells that restrict the freedom of followers. Followers imprisoned in the two-mat cells are often deprived of food, the officers said.
Police found three other women and five men in the cells during the search and are questioning all but one of them. The man not being questioned is being held in protective police custody.
The Renge facility's third floor consists of nine cells, each of which is furnished with an electric bulb and ventilator, but since private toilets are emptied only once a day, officers said the cells emitted an offensive odor.
They added that followers confined to the cells are given a bottle of water at 9 a.m. and a simple daily meal at 10 a.m.
Doors are locked from outside and followers, who are required to submit daily reports, are prohibited from leaving their cells, the officers said. Followers who have "sinned" by breaking cult rules, such as succumbing to sexual desire and committing mistakes during cult activities, are sent to the cells under instructions from cult leaders, they said.
Since followers are aware of the misery of being incarcerated, some left the cult fearing they would not survive imprisonment.
Three followers, including a man in his 30s and two women in their 20s, had escaped from the cult four times, the officials said.
One of the women was walking barefoot in the snow along a highway in January. She was rescued by a patrol car and sent back to her family. However, she returned to the cult and in April escaped before being handed over to police once more. The cult said it has a nursing team that takes care of sick followers in the Renge facility.
Before followers are sent to the cells, they are asked to sign an agreement that says they volunteer to live in the cells, that they will be responsible for whatever happens in the facility and that they will never leave the facility.
Police officers said the cult intends to skirt responsibility by claiming that followers volunteer to live in the cells.
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