The Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult, responsible for a deadly nerve-gas attack in Tokyo in 1995, could still massacre people and required continued Government surveillance, Japan said today.
"To this day, there is still danger that they might commit random massacres," said Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama, after presenting a report to the Cabinet Office on the cult by the Public Security Investigation Agency.
"There is no change in the group's closed structure and deceptive nature. Therefore we must continue monitoring its activities," she said.
According to the agency, the cult, which has renamed itself Aleph, has 1,650 followers including about 300 in Russia.
Members continue to believe imprisoned cult guru Shoko Asahara, who is on trial accused of masterminding the Tokyo subway attack and other crimes, is their absolute leader, Moriyama said.
The sect has already been placed under a second three-year period of surveillance starting February 1.
The report was released as the cult's new figurehead, Fumihiro Joyu, visits Russia in an apparent bid to shore up the loyalty of followers there.
It also came amid expectations that prosecutors would demand the death sentence for Asahara, 48, at his seven-year-old trial in two weeks' time.
Joyu, a former spokesman for the cult, told AFP in Moscow on Thursday that he was visiting Russia as a private tourist "to meet with some old friends."
A public security source in Tokyo said Joyu, 40, was trying to "tighten the reins on followers there" to prevent them leaving the cult even if the death penalty for Asahara was asked.
Apart from murmuring incoherently, Asahara has made virtually no statement at his trial - which opened in April 1996 - since January 1998 when he denied masterminding the gas attack and he has often appeared to doze during proceedings.
He was given a last chance to speak on Thursday but has so far refused even to answer his own lawyers' questions.
Asahara has blamed his disciples for the subway attack, despite testimonies from followers that the offences were committed under his direction.
On April 24, prosecutors are expected to sum up their case against Asahara who is charged with murder and various other crimes.
In 1995, Aum members killed 12 people and injured thousands when they spread Nazi-invented Sarin gas on Tokyo's subway trains. The cult was also responsible for another Sarin attack which left seven dead in the central city of Matsumoto in 1994.
Nine of Asahara's disciples have so far been sentenced to death for their part in the gas attacks and other murders.