Late last month, the Public Security Examination Commission decided to extend government surveillance of Aum Shinrikyo for another three years. The cult is blamed for deadly sarin nerve-gas attacks in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and on the Tokyo subway system in 1994 and 1995, respectively, and other crimes.
While the public in general appears to accept the decision as reasonable, critics argue against applying the law indiscriminately. Commission head Kozo Fujita told a news conference that, depending on the cult's actions, the commission might reconsider its decision.
The commission extended the surveillance on grounds that the cult, which now calls itself Aleph, is still under the influence of its founder, Chizuo Matsumoto (also known as Shoko Asahara), now on trial for masterminding the sarin attacks and other crimes. It also acknowledged that cultists still view Matsumoto as the object of absolute faith. According to the commission, tapes of Matsumoto's sermons are sold for 400,000 yen. It also cited an attempt by a Russian follower to free Matsumoto as proof the cult remains a threat to society.
At the same time, the commission also admitted that since the cult was placed under surveillance three years ago, its menacing character has changed.
"It became more cooperative,'' a commission member told reporters. "At least, we have not noticed any signs that it has begun preparing (for acts of terrorism).''
Commission members engaged in a heated debate over the length of the surveillance extension. While some members said three years was too long, others argued that any time less was unthinkable.
In the end, the commission decided to extend the surveillance for three years, the maximum period allowed by a 1999 law that authorizes surveillance of groups implicated in indiscriminate mass murder.
Speaking at the news conference, Fujita said: "If we get confirmation that the cult has given up its dangerous doctrines, we could decide otherwise.''
Another member added: "We should keep an eye on the cult for a while after the court passes a ruling on Matsumoto. If nothing happens, I think we can end the surveillance.'' A ruling is expected by the end of the year.
In making its decision on the extension, the commission took into account the view presented by the Tokyo District Court in June 2001. While the court turned down Aum's request to reverse the surveillance decision, it stated that "in order not to violate freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Constitution, there must exist the clear threat of indiscriminate mass murder.''
Although the commission did not adopt this legal interpretation-on grounds that it would be too late to act if it waited for a clear and present danger to arise-the court's circumspection about unquestioningly invoking legal measures is believed to have influenced the deliberations.
While continuing the surveillance on the one hand, the commission also publicly stated society as a whole should accept the followers and their children and respect their human rights. A similar statement was also released when the surveillance began three years ago. The second statement demonstrates the seriousness of the rift between cultists and local residents.
Thirty local governments, including Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, that are home to Aum facilities formed an association to deal collectively with Aum-related problems. The association is studying new legislation to regulate the group homes of Aum cultists and plans to call on the central government to enact legal measures.
But Tatsuya Mori, who has directed documentaries on Aum, says it is "counterproductive'' to extend the surveillance.
"To lower the threat posed by the followers, it's necessary to increase (society's) contact with them,'' Mori says. "The surveillance justifies their isolation from society by public officials and people from the local community who do not try to contact them.''
On Jan. 24, a day after the commission decided on the three-year extension of surveillance, a symposium to discuss the Aum problem was held in Setagaya Ward. The discussion centered on the social conditions that lured young people to join Aum and ways to prevent similar incidents from happening again. Few people presented ideas on how to live with Aum followers as members of their communities.