Monday's decision by the Public Security Examination Commission to invoke a law to monitor Aum Shinrikyo will inevitably deal a major blow to the cult -- possibly even leading to its breakup.
According to the law, enacted in December, Aum must submit a list of its current members as well as financial reports of affiliated companies. It also allows Public Security Agency officials to enter Aum's facilities to carry out further inspections.
Authorities hope to be able to determine the flow of money both to and from the cult -- long a keen point of interest for clamping down on the group -- by inspecting the books of firms said to have links to Aum.
"But the fact is, Aum no longer has the power to act as one entity," said Tatsuo Suzuki, who defended the cult when the agency attempted to apply the Antisubversive Activities Law to it in 1996.
In recent weeks, there have been various signs indicating that senior Aum members are in conflict with each other and unable to organize the cult or exert leadership.
Last month, police issued warrants for half a dozen Aum members, including two of cult founder Shoko Asahara's daughters, for allegedly assaulting fellow cultists when they abducted Asahara's eldest son from another facility.
The cult was struck another blow with the arrest of key figure Naruhito Noda, 33, who was in charge of the cult's finances, for threatening a banker when the bank refused to open an account in Aum's new name, Aleph, on the grounds of insufficient documentation.
However, Saturday's announcement by senior cult member Fumihiro Joyu seemed to be an indication that the cult is making efforts to regroup as the surveillance noose tightens.
Joyu said Aum will resume its activities and create new companies from the computer shops that closed at the end of last month in Nagoya and Tokyo's Akihabara district.
The profits from those companies will be used to compensate the victims of the crimes Aum members stand accused of, he said.
Nonetheless, lawyer Suzuki predicted that agency officials will try to use their power to the fullest extent, while cultists are likely to cooperate and offer information so as to avoid giving authorities an excuse to take further steps to corral the cult.
If the commission concludes that Aum interfered with its investigation or is engaged in heinous crimes, Aum will have to give up land and facilities it currently uses for its activities and will be banned from purchasing new sites -- effectively forcing an end to the cult.
Aum leaders express concern that agency officials will abuse their power under the law, since the limit of "inspections" officials may conduct has not been clearly spelled out.
During a hearing last month before the commission, lawyers for the cult argued that the agency should provide guidelines to specify what officials could do and how cult members should cooperate.
However, agency officials only responded by saying that they did not need to do so since the significance of the hearing was to solely grant Aum an opportunity to state its opinion of the law.
Although it may be difficult in the current circumstances, lawyer Takeshi Ono said, he hopes agency officials will not abuse their power and start arresting Aum followers under the new law, which stipulates that cultists may face imprisonment or a fine if they interfere with the investigations.
"With the law's application, many will decide to leave the cult," said Ono, who provides support to former Aum members and their families in the belief that their return to normal society is more constructive than isolating the cultists and placing them under constant surveillance.
"Authorities should leave such cultists alone and give them a chance to come back to society, at least for the time being."
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