Japan cult leader still enthralls followers

AFP/April 21, 2009

Tokyo - The teachings of the doomsday cult leader behind the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks still have 'absolute influence' over followers even though he is on death row, security agencies said Tuesday.

DVDs with speeches by Shoko Asahara are still being used to instruct more than 1,500 followers of the Aum Shinrikyo cult which changed its name in 2000 to Aleph, said the National Police and Public Security Intelligence agencies.

The two agencies said in an annual joint report Asahara, 54, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, 'still has absolute influence' over his followers, estimated at some 1,500 devotees using 30 facilities in Japan.

Membership has fallen from a peak of 11,400 before 1995 but the cult also has some 200 followers and several facilities in Russia, the report said.

"Senior members still use DVD recordings of Matsumoto's preachings, instructing members to believe in Matsumoto and his dogma," the report said.

Matsumoto preached a blend of Buddhist and Hindu dogma mixed with apocalyptic visions, while he was obsessed with Nazi-invented sarin gas and paranoid that his enemies would attack him with it.

The former acupuncturist was convicted of ordering the release of sarin on rush-hour trains on March 20, 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands.

He was sentenced to death in February 2004 for the subway attack and other crimes that claimed a total of 27 lives.

Surveillance of the cult started in February 2000 and was extended last January for the fourth three-year period to last until January 2012.

Despite the police attention, the Aum cult remains legal in Japan, where the constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Memories linger of the suppression of other religions during World War II when Shinto was the state faith.

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