Almost five years after spreading Nazi-invented sarin gas in a crazed attack on Tokyo commuters, the Aum Shinri Kyo cult could be given a new lease of life with the release from jail today of a leading disciple. Fumihiro Joyu, the cult No 2 who worships Aum guru Shoko Asahara as a "messiah", is being released at a time when public fears about the doomsday sect's activities are on the rise.
Joyu, 37, will be freed from western Japan's Hiroshima prison at the end of a three-year sentence imposed for perjury over a land purchase deal by the sect.
"He will return to Aum and regain the position of practical leader," said Shoko Egawa, a journalist who has been investigating the cult for more than a decade.
Joyu is one of the longest-serving disciples of Asahara, who is on trial and facing hanging over the 1995 subway gas attack. He ranks higher than any of the six followers who make up the sect's present collective leadership.
"The most important point is that we should be careful of his calculating character," Egawa said.
The cult last month admitted for the first time that some of its members had been involved in the murderous gas attack, as the trials continued of 13 other followers alongside Asahara in the Tokyo District Court. But Egawa was sceptical of claims by Aum that it had turned over a new leaf. Joyu in particular was dangerous, she warned.
"We should not forget that he led plans for mass murder with biological weapons, that he also directed the construction of the sarin plant before he was promoted to the top of Aum's headquarters in Russia in 1993," she said. Joyu was in Russia running Aum's Moscow branch when the sect spread sarin gas in crowded Tokyo subways in March 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands.
He returned to Japan to become a flamboyant spokesman and media-friendly face of the sinister organisation, which carried out the subway attack allegedly to avenge a police crackdown. Joyu vigorously defended the cult at news conferences and in magazine interviews.
While he may not have convinced the public of the group's innocence, the good-looking Aum disciple perplexed many by gaining a devoted following among young Japanese women.
So-called "Joyu chasers" bombarded him with bouquets of flowers and other gifts and besieged him for autographs at his public appearances. But when his trial opened in March 1996, Joyu lived up to his reputation as a fanatic by saying: "Master Asahara is the messiah and everything for me." Japan's public security agency has stepped up its watch on the Aum Supreme Truth ahead of Joyu's release.
"Inmate Joyu is expected to go back to the sect [after his release], and it will be the focus of our attention which direction he is going to steer the sect," the public security agency said.
The cult escaped being outlawed under legislation banning "subversive activities" in January 1997 when a legal panel ruled there was no reason to believe it could still pose a threat to society.
But it is feared the sect has since improved its finances through selling computers, and that it is recruiting more followers to add to its claimed 1,500-strong membership.
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