TOKYO, Japan (AP) - As part of its campaign to clean up its image, the cult accused in the 1995 nerve-gas attack on Tokyo subways offered Saturday to pay a total of $1.14 million a year as compensation to the victims. Tatsuko Muraoka, who replaced Shoko Asahara as guru of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult this month, said several tens of thousands of dollars will be paid to the victims immediately.
"I don't intend to deny that I bear a heavy responsibility," said Fumihiro Joyu, one of the cult's leaders, appearing before reporters for the first time since his release from prison last month. It was not immediately clear how many people the cult was offering to compensate.
Aum, which recently changed its name to Aleph, also said it will start a personal computer company and transfer all proceeds into a victims fund. The announcement comes as Aum tries to soften its image. Tokyo toughened its laws last month to let authorities seize Aum's assets more easily and monitor the cult more closely.
A government panel is preparing to announce in the coming week what affect the decision will have on Aum. Last month, the cult apologized for the subway gassing that killed 12 people and sickened 5,500 people - something it had refused to do for the last five years.
The cult's recent expressions of contrition, however, have been received with deep skepticism by the Japanese public not only because of its timing but also because the cult has not opened its books. Police say it earns about $66 million a year from its discount computer chain stores. The cult is believed to operate other businesses and have revenue from followers' donations. It can also sell its assets. Aum had promised to compensate the victims, but Saturday's announcement was the first time it gave figures and some details on the compensation. Joyu, who acknowledged Asahara's involvement in the gassing, defended Asahara's teachings.
"I approve of our exalted teacher Asahara's spiritual practices," Joyu told reporters at the cult's Yokohama office. Joyu, who was never charged in the subway gassing, denied knowing about the attack in advance but said he had been overexuberant in defending the cult and denying its guilt.
"I'd like to apologize for that," Joyu said, appearing before the cameras in a conservative suit instead of the loose robes that used to be the cult trademark.
Asahara is on trial on charges of masterminding the sarin gassing. Cult members have also been charged in the slaying of an anti-cult lawyer and his family, the murders of wayward followers and a separate sarin gassing that killed seven people and sickened more than 200 in a residential area in central Japan in 1994.
Most of the victims have received only a portion of the damages set by the Japanese courts. Only 1,136 people have come forward to claim compensation, partly because of fears they may lose their jobs if people find out they are sarin victims.
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