Japan Drafts Bill to Control Some Cults by Year's End

New York Times, Nov 3, 1999
By Calvin Sims

OKYO -- The Japanese government approved a bill Tuesday that is intended to restrict the expanding activities of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, which was behind the fatal nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in 1995 and other terrorist acts.

The bill, which has been eagerly anticipated here, is expected to be approved with the support of the governing Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partners and to go into effect by the end of the year.

Although the bill does not mention Aum Shinrikyo by name, it gives security forces broad powers to monitor and curtail the activities of organizations that have committed "indiscriminate mass murder" and whose leaders hold strong influence over its members.

Several members of Aum Shinrikyo, including its founder, Shoko Asahara, are on trial for, or have been convicted of, crimes that include the sarin gas attack in the subways that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000 others.

The proposed legislation comes in response to growing public outrage against the group, which has greatly expanded its membership and commercial efforts. It follows legislation passed in China last week that bans sects like the Falun Gong movement, a popular program of traditional exercises and meditation, which the Chinese government has tried to discredit by likening it to Aum Shinrikyo.

As Aum Shinrinkyo has sought new facilities to house its followers and conduct operations, many municipal governments across Japan have refused to allow members to register as city residents, in effect denying them access to social services. Some businesses will not sell goods to the group's followers, and some towns have spent public money to persuade members to leave town.

Japanese political leaders, city mayors, and victims of the subway attack applauded the proposed legislation Tuesday as a necessary step to prevent terrorism. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi said that he hoped the legislature would pass the bill "as soon as possible.

Yukio Takano, the top official in Tokyo's Toshima ward, where the group's public relations headquarters are based, said, "I hope Aum's activities will be curbed by the law and that they are forced to leave our city and other municipalities."

But human rights activists and legal groups criticized the bill, saying that it impinges on personal freedoms and violates the constitution. Shigeru Kobori, president of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, said in a statement that while his organization understands the anxiety that many Japanese feel toward Aum Shinrikyo, the proposed law "contains serious constitutional problems in that it enables the authorities to take up measures to limit basic human rights."

"This is a very dangerous law because it could be used against any organization that the government, the police, or the public safety commission doesn't like," said Kenichi Asano, a human rights advocate. Under this law, if the government believes someone is part of a certain organization, they can arrest them, put them in prison, or search their home. People should be prosecuted because they individually commit crimes, not because they belong to organizations whose members have been accused of crimes."

Under the proposed legislation, an organized group implicated in serious crimes can be placed under the surveillance of the Public Security Investigation Agency for up to three years and forced to report on its activities every three months.

The bill gives police and public security officials the right to inspect the group's facilities at any time, and if the group is found to have broken any laws, it can be banned from acquiring land or facilities for up to six months. In August, public support for legislation to restrict Aum Shinrikyo's activities increased sharply after a young woman told police a frightening account of being chloroformed and abducted for 12 hours by its followers. The 19-year-old woman said the assailants told her that she would be killed if her family did not drop a lawsuit seeking damages from the group for the death of her brother, who was killed in another nerve gas attack linked to the group in 1994 in Matsumoto.

Although Aum Shinrikyo denied involvement in any attack and the police had no evidence implicating it, the young woman's accusations were widely believed, raising public anxiety and calls for the government to take action. But last week the woman admitted to police that she made up the story because she hates Aum Shinrikyo.

In another case that received widespread public attention, police arrested two members of the group in September and charged them with confining a woman follower against her will to a cell inside an Aum Shinrikyo building But the two were released after the woman told prosecutors that she was not being forcibly detained but rather was undertaking an ascetic program voluntarily.

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