Japan's Aum Supreme Truth sect finally on the run: analysts

AFP, Sept 30, 1999

TOKYO, Sept 30 (AFP) - Japan's Aum Supreme Truth cult may finally be feeling the heat from an outraged public more than four years after a deadly gas attack on Tokyo's subways, analysts said Thursday.

But there is a danger the doomsday cult will now go underground, they said, as the first death sentence was handed down for the March 1995 operation that killed 12 people and injured thousands.

In a crushing week for the group:

-- Tokyo District Court Thursday sentenced senior cult member Masato Yokoyama to hang for spreading Sarin gas in Tokyo's subways, the first death penalty handed out for the crime.

-- Two hundred police raided a cult building near the winter resort city of Nagano on Wednesday and arrested two disciples suspected of imprisoning a woman member who wanted to escape.

-- The cult held a news conference late on Wednesday, announcing it will temporarily stop using the name Aum Supreme Truth and halt activities such as recruiting, big meetings and major property deals.

"Neither the government nor public feel secure about the Aum since the cult has yet to give them a convincing explanation of its involvement with the Sarin gas attack and yesterday's arrests," said Keiichi Sakuta, emeritus professor of sociology at Kyoto University.

On Thursday, the cult moved out of its headquarters in Tokyo's Adachi ward, near the prison holding cult leader Shoko Asahara who faces 17 criminal charges including masterminding the 1995 subway attack.

But it was immediately confronted by protesters at the new base in Tokyo's central Toshima district.

Placards were placed outside the premises reading: "A crimeless town does not need Aum!" and "Don't come Aum, don't let them in, and protect the peaceful town."

"Aum is being pressured by the heated outcry both from the government and public, and all these measures such as announcing a halt in its activities, changing the name and moving its headquarters building are being taken by the cult for its own survival," Sakuta said.

But "as Aum is being placed in a corner, there is a danger that the cult will then go underground," he warned.

The sect escaped being outlawed under the Subversive Activities Prevention Act in January 1997 when a legal panel ruled there was no reason to believe it could still pose a threat to society.

Aum Supreme Truth has boosted its financial base with computer sales and is now regrouping, with some 1,500 followers at more than 30 facilities in Tokyo and other cities, according to the public security investigation agency.

Public anger against the cult has mounted as its size has grown and followers move into often hostile communities. Police have also raided many of its properties investigating allegations of forgery.

Takatoshi Imada, professor of sociology at Tokyo Institute of Technology, said the government underestimated the sect when it failed to invoke anti-subversive legislation to stop its activities.

It believed police could handle the cult, he said.

"But residents did not take the Aum lightly and they were dead serious in getting rid of the group from their communities," Imada told AFP. "In addition to police checks, residents' tenacious protests are ... working well," the analyst said.

"People's continuous chants of 'Get Out Aum' are having a significant impact on Aum members, putting them under psychological pressure.

"Police checks, residents' fierce protests, yesterday's arrest and today's death sentence all add up to create pressure on Aum members." In addition to Asahara, dozens of his followers are still being tried on charges ranging from fraud to murder related to the gas attack, as well as the murders of an anti-Aum lawyer and his family. The Aum Supreme Truth cult leader told Tokyo District Court last week he gave no orders in relation to the gas attack.

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