Aum Three Years Later: Sarin plant haunts Kamikuishiki

Japan Times/March 18, 1998
By Sumiko Oshima and Toshi Maeda

KAMIKUISHIKI, Yamanashi Pref. -- Only a rusted three-story structure in a barren field here remains to remind Japan of the horror and turmoil that three years ago shook the nation's sense of security.

More than 1,000 police officers wearing full-face gas masks stormed the compound of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo in this village on March 22, 1995 -- two days after the nerve gas sarin was released on the Tokyo subway system, killing 12 and injuring some 3,800.

During the raid, tons of chemicals were found in Satyam No. 7 -- the Aum structure where sarin was allegedly produced. Scores of cultists, including founder Shoko Asahara, were eventually arrested in connection with the subway attack and another sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in June 1994 that killed seven people and injured hundreds.

Some 1,000 cultists, who began moving into the village in 1989 and lived in more than 30 Aum buildings, have left. Almost all the structures have been dismantled by the Kamikuishiki Municipal Government, with financial assistance from the central government.

However, one thing remains to be done to restore peace to this village of 1,700 people at the foot of Mount Fuji -- tearing down Satyam No. 7, the only remaining Aum facility here.

For people living near the structure, life has not yet returned to normal. "I can still smell the chemicals sometimes when I take a walk in the morning," said Norie Okamoto, 69, who lives just 100 meters from Satyam No. 7.

Although an internationally established deadline to start dismantling Satyam No. 7 is set for April 29, it has not been determined who will foot the bill. Authorities designated the structure as a chemical weapons factory on May 29, 1997, a month after the International Convention on the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons took effect.

Allegedly on the orders of Asahara, Aum followers constructed the building between 1993 and 1994 to produce 70 tons of the nerve gas. In early 1994, cult scientists made 30 kg of sarin that was later used in the Matsumoto attack, according to investigators. The building was seized by authorities in spring 1995 as evidence in a variety of crimes, including both sarin [missing]

The convention obliges all countries to start tearing down any chemical weapons plants within a year after being identified as such. "But at the moment, we have no idea when we can start destroying the facility," said Taijiro Kimura, an official of the Chemical Weapons Convention Division of the Foreign Ministry.

The ministry has asked the convention's Hague-based supervisory organization for permission to delay demolition of the structure because it has been preserved as evidence for court trials.

The supervisory body said it has not made a decision on the matter, and Japan's request for the delay is still being considered. But the government has expressed a positive view. "This is a rare case that the convention had not foreseen. When inspection officers saw the plant last summer, we described why it is problematic to start the demolition work," Kimura said. "We don't think a delay would be a problem." The delay may merely postpone dealing with the problem, however, because at the moment, everyone seems reluctant to raze the structure.

Last July, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor's Office asked Saburo Abe, the cult's bankruptcy administrator, whether he was ready to assume control of the building. But he refused, claiming it is the government's responsibility to look after such a dangerous facility.

"Residue from dangerous chemicals probably remains in the plant. We want the Self-Defense Forces to tear it down," said Mitsuo Hanaoka, an assistant to Abe. More importantly, Hanaoka added, the demolition work will cost too much.


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