Cult feeling the heat as crackdown laws debut

Japan Times, December 3, 1999
By Kanako Takahara

Friday's enactment of two laws specifically targeting Aum Shinrikyo may give investigative authorities new ammunition with which to battle the cult, and Aum's leadership will have to perform a balancing act between self-preservation and public acceptance.

The swiftness with which the Diet passed the two bills aimed specifically, but not nominally, at Aum was triggered by the escalation of disputes across the nation between residents and the cultists in their midst.

Public support for quick steps to restrict the activities of a cult branded as a threat to society led to speedy Diet deliberation during a session in which most other key bills are facing fierce objections from the opposition camp.

But despite the accelerated deliberations, some lawyers and scholars continue to voice concern over the new laws, warning they may be unconstitutional.

Mizuho Fukushima, a lawyer and Upper House member of the Social Democratic Party, said law enforcement bodies will be able to apply the new laws to illegal activities that were committed before their enactment -- something forbidden under the Constitution.

"In addition, investigative bodies can make pre-emptive crackdowns on a group," although the Constitution allows state powers to take action only after a crime is committed, she added.

However, the creation of anti-Aum legislation was to some extent inevitable to put an end to the situation communities were facing, where many local governments refused to accept residency applications of Aum members while residents launched campaigns demanding that the followers move out.

In addition, supporters say, if law enforcement bodies continued to restrict the cult's activities by applying existing laws alone, they would have to keep arresting followers on minor charges such as trespassing -- a move that could be criticized as abuse of state power.

Aum itself has not been blind to the mounting public criticism. Over the past few months its leaders have been trying to keep a low profile while plotting a course of action.

As the laws were poised for final Diet deliberations, Aum offered long-awaited apologies Wednesday and promised to compensate by the end of January those victimized by the heinous crimes that its members stand accused of.

These include the March 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, in which 12 people died.

It was the first time the cult apologized for the series of crimes blamed on its followers, and coupled with the enactment of the anti-Aum laws, these latest moves will most likely ease public anxiety to a certain extent.

But skeptics say the statement is yet another one of Aum's ploys to avert anticipated moves by investigative authorities to invoke the new laws. Some also say the cult is buying time until the release of charismatic senior cultist Fumihiro Joyu later this month, hoping he can chart a new course for Aum.

"It is a step forward that the cult offered apologies," said Shoko Egawa, a journalist who has extensively covered Aum. "But we'll have to wait until the end of January to see what (Aum's) real intention was (in making these remarks)."

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