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Japan Police Arrest Cult Head for Poison Gas Attack

By T.R. Reid
The Washington Post

An army of police officers wearing bright blue riot helmets arrested the guru of a secretive religious cult Tuesday on murder charges in connection with the March 20 poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and were seeking about 40 of his followers on similar charges.

Police armed with arrest warrants raided about 130 facilities of Shoko Asahara's Aum Supreme Truth cult in their search for suspects, but the chief focus of the operation - televised live on every network - was the cult's sprawling property below Mt. Fuji, where Asahara was believed to be hiding with his wife and six children.

The raids began at dawn at the Mt. Fuji facility - said to be honeycombed with underground tunnels and secret passages - but it was not until three hours later that Asahara was taken into custody. Police said he was found meditating on an upper level of one of many buildings on the cult property. The warrants for the arrest of Asahara and other cult leaders after a nine-week investigation were clearly meant by authorities to bring to an end the scariest spring Japan has experienced in more than 20 years. The terrorist subway attack, which left 12 people dead and sickened 5,000 others, was followed by several other incidents involving noxious gas; by the shooting of the police chief heading an investigation of the cult; and the fatal stabbing of a senior aide to Asahara.

Almost as frightening as the crimes was the widely spoken fear that the menacing spring of 1995 might indicate that Japan's cherished values of harmony, civility and public order were withering away. But since police now seem to be attributing virtually all the crimes to members of a single fringe group, the broader fears about a breakdown of order may well have been allayed.

The police raids were part of perhaps the most public arrest effort this country has ever seen. Hundreds of reporters were on the scene below Mt. Fuji, and TV networks offered detailed coverage and analyses - including such minute observations as: "They're now using a 1.5 meter crowbar to pry open the doors."

At the same time, there was some concern here that followers of Ashahara who are still at large and angry over the pending arrest of their leader might try to mount some form of retaliation. One reason police waited so long to move against Asahara apparently was their effort to round up cult members they deemed dangerous before trying to apprehend the guru.

About 150 members of Asahara's cult have been arrested since the subway attack, but most have been charged with minor crimes unrelated to the gassing so that they could be held for questioning. The warrants issued Tuesday, charging murder and attempted murder, constitute a signal to the people of Japan that police and prosecutors believe the Tokyo subway case closed.

In Japan, an arrest is generally considered as conclusive as a guilty verdict would be in the United States. Police and prosecutors here are proud of their record of convicting 99 percent of all those charged with crimes; accordingly, they generally do not arrest anyone until a conviction is all but certain.

The workings of Japan's justice system suggest that the 40-year-old Asahara almost certainly will never be a free man again. He will be jailed without bail until a trial, as is common practice here, and if convicted will likely be sentenced either to death by hanging or life imprisonment.

Press reports relying on criminal justice sources indicate that police eventually intend to charge Asahara or his followers with most of the other terrorist crimes this spring, including the shooting of the police chief. Members of the cult reportedly will be charged as well with a previous poison gas incident that killed seven people last summer in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto.

Both that case and the subway attack involved use of a lethal nerve gas called sarin, which was developed by Nazi Germany in World War II. Asahara, an admirer of Adolf Hitler, emerged quickly as a subject for police investigation because he had been making speeches about "the power of sarin."

Police spokesman Shigeaki Ishikawa announced issuance of the arrest warrants Tuesday morning, saying: "We have obtained evidence that the sect has produced sarin within its compound. We have found that sect members were involved in the attacks on the (Tokyo) subways." He then went on to name Asahara and other cult leaders.

If Asahara and his followers are convicted in the Matsumoto killings, the shooting of the police chief and the subway gassing, Tuesday's arrests would solve the three most serious crimes in recent Japanese history.

Asahara, a Buddha-shaped figure with stringy hair and a beard, looks almost like a Central Casting version of a cult guru, with his wardrobe of bright pastel robes and his "throne" of satin pillows on which he sat in the lotus position while preaching.

He began forming cults about 10 years ago after two failed business careers and one criminal conviction. Styling himself the "Venerated Master," he has written numerous wildly illogical books and brochures that seem to draw their message from several different world religions.