Japanese cult leader, 14 others charged in poison gas attacks

May 16, 1995|By New York Times News Service

TOKYO -- In an extraordinary spectacle that riveted the nation's attention, thousands of police officers conducted raids this morning and arrested the guru of the Aum Shinri Kyo, or "Supreme Truth," religious sect on charges of organizing the nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

The guru, Shoko Asahara, was discovered meditating, apparently in a lotus position, in a secret chamber in the sect's headquarters near Mount Fuji.

Members of the Japanese Cabinet held an emergency meeting at dawn, police went on alert nationwide, and six television stations provided live coverage beginning when a police officer used an electric saw to cut open a door in the basement where Mr. Asahara was hiding.

The authorities hope that the arrest of Mr. Asahara and 14 of his followers this morning will end what a Cabinet member described as "like a war" between the sect and the Japanese government.

Ever since the March 20 subway attack, which killed 12 people and injured 5,500, Japanese have lived with unaccustomed fear when they take trains or go to public places.

"The police have tried to solve this case point by point," Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama declared in a nationwide address moments after Mr. Asahara's arrest. "Now the police have the peak of this mountain."

Mr. Murayama warned, however, that there may still be stockpiles of nerve gas that the police have not found. "The most important thing is to prevent a repetition of the nerve gas attack," he said.

Now the authorities are concerned that the sect's followers who have not been arrested will launch guerrilla attacks on the public and on the government.

Mr. Murayama said that an additional 80,000 police officers had been mobilized nationwide to prevent further attacks.

Police obtained arrest warrants last night for murder and attempted murder for Mr. Asahara and 40 of his followers. About 10 of them are already detained on minor charges, and 14 more were arrested this morning.

The raids were particularly delicate because the police believe that the group may have stockpiles of nerve gas, as well as guns and other weapons.

The sect is suspected of not only manufacturing nerve gas, but of experimenting with other poison gases, making machine guns, researching biological weapons, and assembling tons of raw materials for dynamite.

The group's teachings, which draw on tenets borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism, center on respect for Mr. Asahara and veneration of the god Shiva, the Hindu lord of destruction and creation.

Mr. Asahara, a 40-year-old man who is partly blind and often wears pink robes, is ill with an uncertain ailment, and he preaches that the end of the world is near.

Mr. Asahara was found in a secret room between the second and third floors of Building No. 6 of the sect's headquarters in the village of Kamikuishiki.

Scores of Japanese television crews and photographers have been staking out the building, some equipped with gas masks in case nerve gas was released.

Police officers in riot gear have been surrounding the building, and military units with chemical-weapons training are believed to have been on alert.

About 20 cult members who live in Building No. 6 did not interfere, but could be seen poking their heads out of doors and windows.

They wore helmets with an electronic apparatus that is supposed to align their brain waves with the guru's.

In the weeks since the March 20 subway attack, the police have gathered a mass of evidence linking the sect to the attack.

The sect is also strongly suspected in another attack in which the nerve gas sarin was used. In that incident, seven people were killed in June in the city of Matsumoto.

It is also suspected in several kidnappings and in the disappearance of some of its enemies, as well as the March 30 assassination attempt on the head of the National Police Agency.

Officials of the sect have denied engaging in any criminal activity, and there is no evidence that ordinary, low-ranking members knew anything about the nerve gas production.

Fumihiro Joyu, a spokesman for the sect, said that the raids represented "extraordinary religious suppression."

The issuance of arrest warrants for Mr. Asahara and his followers are more significant than warrants would be in the United States.

In Japan, the police tend to seek arrest warrants only when they have just about enough evidence to win a conviction in court, and indictments and convictions almost always follow arrests.

Japan imposes the death penalty, by hanging, in some murder cases. Typically, a person found guilty of a single murder is not executed, but those convicted of multiple murders are hanged.

Police had appeared reluctant to arrest Mr. Asahara, partly for fear of retaliatory acts by the sect's followers. But police yesterday arrested the sect's intelligence chief,

Yoshihiro Inoue, allegedly a central figure in various kidnappings and attacks, and that seemed to give them new assurance.

Mr. Inoue is suspected of leading the attack on five subway cars on three lines, all converging on central government offices.

According to Japanese news reports based on police briefings that foreigners are not allowed to attend, a number of sect officials who are under arrest have confessed to involvement with the nerve gas.

The head of the group's "chemical squad," Masami Tsuchiya, reportedly acknowledged that he oversaw the manufacture of sarin nerve gas, most recently in January.

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