Japanese police gamble pays off in chemicals, gold

March 23, 1995|By Thomas Easton | Thomas Easton,Tokyo Bureau of The Sun The Los Angeles Times contributed to this article.

TOKYO -- In raiding the headquarters of a secretive religious group yesterday and again early today, Japanese police were gambling that the nerve agent attack on Tokyo's subway system was foreshadowed by a less spectacular event.

That event involved the group called Aum Shinri Kyo, or the Supreme Truth, and its suspected role in the kidnapping last month of a government clerk, Kiyoushi Kariya. Mr. Kariya's sister was a member of the sect but wanted to leave it -- by all accounts something not easily done. Mr. Kariya was trying to help her, but was kidnapped in central Tokyo on Feb. 28 by four men who pushed him into a van.

He has not been seen since.

Warrants issued on his behalf were the pretext yesterday and today for a force of 2,500 police, many wearing army-issue gas masks, to enter 25 buildings belonging to the sect in Tokyo and in the village of Kamiku-Ishiki, 65 miles west of the city.

Authorities failed to find Mr. Kariya but discovered 200 drums of toxic chemicals similar to those suspected of being used in the subway attack, 22 pounds of gold and $7.9 million in cash. There was a Russian-made helicopter that might explain how the ingredients for a nerve agent had been brought into Japan. There were also 50 people who were near starvation, some of them unconscious.

Police arrested a sect member in western Japan today after a car chase that began when they stopped him for a traffic violation. The Japanese Defense Forces dispatched 14 chemical experts to the scene near Hikone after suspicious substances, gas masks and metal briefcases were found in the car.

Japanese police said the driver, later identified as Katsuhiko Kobayashi, 26, tried to evade police, running red lights and crashing into a truck. Japanese TV showed footage of the chase. The police and military blocked off the area, while residents looked on anxiously.

In yesterday's raid, police arrested five sect officials, three of them physicians, and charged them with confining people against their will. But authorities refused to say whether the sect members were also being questioned in connection with the subway attack.

The organization insisted that all the charges against them were false. "This police raid based on trumped-up charges is nothing but a persecution of our religious activities," a sect statement said.

A second statement, issued by the group's branch in New York, accused Japan's government of planning to kill sect members and make it look like mass suicide. "If it is reported that our order committed suicide," the statement said, "understand that we were killed by the Japanese state authorities."

The subway attack Monday involved the nerve agent sarin; it killed 10 people and left another 5,000 injured. Seventy of the injured remain hospitalized in critical condition.

Authorities did not find Shoko Asahara, a former pharmacist who began the sect in 1987.

Mr. Asahara, who is about 40, has said he was "enlightened" during travels in the Himalayas and has claimed that he can levitate. He chose Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and renewal, as the sect's main object of worship.

He only deepened the mystery about him by broadcasting a message Tuesday to his followers in the Russian Far East. "The time has come at last for you to awake and help me," he said in a message rebroadcast yesterday by Japanese TV. "You must act to ensure you do not have any regrets about death."

In another broadcast this morning, Mr. Asahara denied that his group produced the nerve agent used in the subway attacks.

Authorities estimate that the sect has about 10,000 members in Japan and branches in Russia, Germany and the United States.

It has come under intense scrutiny in the past, but has survived and even grown; in Japan, the sect now owns noodle shops, computer stores and real estate.

In 1990, police raided 14 of Aum Shinri Kyo's offices and seized documents, an investigation prompted by families who alleged that the sect was holding their children captive.

Tsutsumi Sakamoto was the lawyer who represented many of those families. He, his wife and their 2-year-old child disappeared in 1989. Left in their home was a flowered badge embossed with the name of the sect. Their disappearance has never been explained.

New members are usually required to turn over all their possessions to the group and to sever ties with their families. In one of the buildings raided yesterday, police found small, windowless cells in which members could be confined.

Last July, police found traces of sarin, the nerve agent apparently used in the subway attack, when they responded to complaints of a noxious odor outside the Aum Shinri Kyo compound at Kamiku-Ishiki. On Sunday, the day before the subway attack, police raided another Aum Shinri Kyo office to rescue a student who had allegedly been abducted.

In that incident, three members of the sect were arrested for holding a person against his will. Aum Shinri Kyo responded by filing a $2 million suit against the government, charging false arrest.

Nothing has been heard of Mr. Kariya, the clerk abducted last month. According to Japanese press reports, Mr. Kariya's sister had agreed to give Aum Shinri Kyo the family's properties, possibly as a payment to allow her to leave the sect.

Mr. Kariya contested the property transfer and was kidnapped. Police later recovered the rented van allegedly used by his abductors and found traces of Mr. Kariya's blood inside the vehicle. Investigators found a sect official's fingerprint on the rental documents, which became the justification for yesterday's raid.

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