Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

FALSE PROPHET: THE AUM CULT OF TERROR

Legal Manoeuvres

In late June 2001, the 200th hearing in the trial of Shoko Asahara passed without celebration. Prosecutors are beginning to wrap up their part of the case, while the lawyers for Asahara are preparing to present defense arguments. The hearings started in April 1996, and have proceeded consistently at a rate of about three or four per month. Asahara has caused some of the delay by constantly mumbling and often dozing off in court. Lawyers say that the final decision on the fate of the former cult leader could still be several years away.

People attached to the cult are having their own problems. Local governments are not allowing members of the cult to register for residency, thus depriving them of social benefits, like health insurance. One member claimed that 111 people had been turned down for residency in areas like Yokohama and some of Tokyos wards (city areas).

An appeal mounted by lawyers for Kazuaki Okazaki, the first cult member to be sentenced to death for the murders of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife, and their infant son, closed arguments recently. A decision is expected to be issued on December 13, 2001. Okazaki also stands convicted of the killing of former Aum member Shuji Taguchi in February 1989.

Russian police have arrested four cult members who they say planned to plant explosives in Japan to try to force the government to free Shoko Asahara. Evidence submitted was televised, and showed that the group stockpiled bombs and weapons, and even had identified target cities in Japan that were to be attacked.

Japans Supreme Court rejected an appeal by the wife of Asahara, Tomoko Matsumoto, to lessen her sentence for her part in the killing of an Aum member wishing to leave the cult. Her sentence will stand.

On October 11, 2001, the Daily Yomiuri reported that the Aum cult's botched attempt at spreading anthrax almost a decade ago should have been a wake-up call for Japan but experts say that Japanese officials failed to learn important lessons from the event.

Keiichi Tsuneishi, an expert on bio-terrorism at Kanagawa University, told the Yomiuri: In Japan, there is no overall system to deal with this.  It is impossible to totally prevent such attacks ... but you can limit the impact. he said 

Tsuneishi stated that the only reason the Aum attack failed was because the anthrax that was used was a harmless strain designed for use as a vaccine for cattle.  There were complaints from those living nearby about a strange smell,'' Tsuneishi said. If it had been a strain from which a bio-weapon could be made, it would have been far more serious.''

Some experts have cited Aum's failed attempt as pointing to the difficulties of executing successful biological attacks.  If Aum had taken more time and been more proficient it might have killed thousands or even tens of thousands, said an article which appeared in Jane's Intelligence Weekly in June 1999.  In short, chemical, biological and nuclear weapons are harder for terrorists to obtain and to make than some reports would suggest, the article said.

Since the September 11 attacks and the U.S. anthrax cases, Japanese ministries have begun ordering research institutes to check up on the dangerous bacteria or viruses they possess, report on steps they are taking to control them, and tighten security as needed.  Tsuneishi said, however, that better coordination among ministries was essential, as was raising the consciousness of researchers themselves about potential theft by terrorists.

Despite the growing awareness, Japan's military has been slow to boost readiness for possible biological attacks, due in part to the legacy of the Imperial Army's top-secret Unit 731, which conducted biological experiments on Chinese, Korean and Russian prisoners of war during World War Two, analysts say.  In general, the capacity to cope is very limited, defense expert Tomohisa Sakanaka told Reuters recently. It has been thought that for the military even to do research on such things is itself dangerous...We have learned too much from history.

On October 13, 2001, the Daily Yomiuri reported that the Osaka District Court had ordered the Suita municipal government in Osaka prefecture and Mayor Yoshio Sakaguchi to accept residence registrations from two followers of the Aum Supreme Truth cult and pay them a total of 400,000 yen in compensation for refusing to register them as residents.

In all, five similar cases have been brought into court by Aum members in Sanwamachi, Ibaraki Prefecture, Tokyo's Setagaya Ward, and other places since the cult carried out its sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March, 1995.

Presiding Judge Jun Miura said in his ruling, According to the Basic Resident Registers Law, heads of villages, towns and cities retain no rights to reject residence registrations claiming that residents are assumed to pose threats to others. Therefore, their position was illegal.

The two cultists moved into Aum's Osaka branch in Suita around June, 2000, and submitted residence registration forms to the municipal government on July 11, 2000. However, a city official in charge of the registration rejected their forms saying they posed a potential threat to public welfare.

On October 21, 2001 defense lawyers for Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum cult, requested that the Tokyo District Court adjourn the trial for a year to give them time to prepare their defense, judicial sources said Saturday.

The defense team said the adjournment is required to allow them to build a suitable defense and select witnesses to appear for their client.  The prosecution raised objections to the demand calling the request totally unacceptable.

The district court was unlikely to accept the adjournment request before Asahara's defense lawyers begin examining evidence and witnesses.  The prosecution was not expected to finish presenting its case until the end of 2002 at the earliest and the defense case was not expected to finish for at least another year after that.  

Asaharas lawyers presented their request at a meeting with the district court judges and prosecutors in early October siting inadequate communication with their client as the prime reason as he frequently failed to turn up for meetings at the Tokyo Detention House, and when he did, he refused to answer their questions.

So far the trial has run for over 5 years with no end in sight.

On October 26, 2001 the Daily Yomiuri reported that among the items found in the New Jersey apartment of one of the men suspected of taking part in the September 11 terrorist attack on the United States was a copy of a U.S. weekly magazine that featured a report on the Aum cults 1995 sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system.

The news came on top of a rash of incidents involving anthrax-tainted mail in the United States.  The Aum cult, is one of 28 groups mentioned on a list of foreign terrorist organizations kept by the U.S. State Department.  The list, released on October 5, 2001, is updated every two years. The Japanese Red Army, a group that shook the world with its radical antiestablishment violence, has been taken off the list, but the Aum Supreme Truth cult remains on it.  This means that Aum, in the eyes of the U.S. government at least, should still be regarded as a highly dangerous terrorist organization even after the arrest of its leaders and the change of name from Aum to Aleph in January 2000.

Experts have even suggested that the terrorist group headed by Osama bin Laden has carried out its terrorist activities following the model of crimes committed by Aum.  Investigations following the 1995 arrests have shown that Aum had plans to stage terrorist attacks using not only chemical agents, such as sarin, VX gas and phosgene, but also biological weapons such as anthrax and botulin.

In recent years, U.S. government officials have become highly alarmed by Aum's activities and fail to understand why the cult is still allowed to continue its activities in Japan despite the spate of appalling crimes it committed.

On July 05, 2002, AP Reuters reported that the Tokyo High Court had reduced the 18-year prison sentence imposed on a former senior member of the Aum cult by three years, saying he had shown deep remorse for his crimes.

Masahiro Tominaga, was sentenced in 1999 after being found guilty of crimes including the attempted murder of the governor of Tokyo with a parcel bomb in 1995.  His criminal responsibility is grave, but he has apologized to victims and shown deep remorse by paying compensation to them, presiding Judge Shogo Takahashi told the court.

Tominaga, a doctor who trained at Japan's elite Tokyo University, had pleaded not guilty at his trial, saying he was under the control of sect leader Shoko Asahara.  He was one of the senior advisors in the cult known as the emperor's secretariat.  Tominaga was also convicted of the attempted murder of an anti-sect lawyer and attempted cyanide gas attack at Shinjuku Station, Japan's biggest train station.

The previous month, the Tokyo district court had sentenced to death Tomomitsu Niimi, 38, a former officer of the doomsday cult for his role in a deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway lines and other murders.

He was the eighth Aum follower to be sentenced to hang for his crimes, while dozens of others, including Asahara, are still on trial.

On August 23, 2002, Mainichi Shimbun reported that the Aum cult is making millions of yen charging people for religious leaders to pat their heads.

Aum leaders have admitted charging 1.5 million yen for cult figurehead Fumihiro Joyu to tap followers on the head for five minutes in a ceremony it calls "Shakty Pat," and claim the process sends a sacred energy through believers' bodies.

The cult, declared bankrupt in the wake of the 1995 subway gassing, picked up at least 100 million yen by reviving the practice with over 70 people paying enormous fees to undergo Shakty Pat in 2002 alone.  It's a fact that we did carry out Shakty Pat during a seminar, Hiroshi Araki, the cult's spokesman said.  It has made an enormous contribution to the cult in the past and some people made considerable donations. We haven't sought any other donations since.

Japanese public safety officials believe the cult has reintroduced the practice to raise funds to strengthen the cult for Joyu. Joyu is the effective leader of the cult while Shoko Asahara is standing trial on 17 counts of murder.

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