25 facilities of secretive sect are hit
TOKYO — Thousands of police swooped down early this morning on buildings owned by the religious cult Omu Shinrikyo in raids that authorities said were related to a kidnapping investigation, but which appeared to be connected to Monday’s gas bombings of the Tokyo subway system.
Among 25 cult facilities that were raided were two around which residents have complained of chemical fumes and odors. Around one of these, in Yamanashi
Prefecture west of Tokyo, police last summer found chemicals they said were similar to sarin, the substance which, in gaseous form, is believed to have killed 10 people and injured thousands more in the subway attack.
About 700 people were hospitalized, 75 of them in critical condition.
Several sect followers were arrested, but police did not cite the charges. ”I don’t know exactly, but I think it is for confining people against their will,” a spokesman for the Tokyo Metropolitian Police Department said.
The police said they found about 50 people in a “comatose state” today and apparently suffering from malnutrition when they raided one facility used by the secretive sect.
The Kyodo news agency reported that that police found more than 10 bottles of a liquid that appeared to be acetonitrile, which appeared to have been mixed with sarin.
A police official confirmed that some chemicals had been seized at the sect’s facilities at Kamiku-Isshiki village, west of Tokyo.
The Yamanashi facility, a large compound of 17 corrugated steel and concrete buildings, was a focal point of this morning’s raids, which were launched simultaneously in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures at 6 a.m. by police wearing gas masks. Some officers also carried canaries in an effort to detect gas.
Cult members at some facilities tried to prevent police from entering and were ejected screaming in protest. Others, some chanting and praying, remained inside. An estimated 900 cult members live at the Yamanashi site.
“What are you doing?” a white-suited woman screamed as she was forced
from a building owned by the cult in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward. “Help! Violence, this is! Why do you have to do this to people who do nothing?” She then began videotaping police and a large crowd of onlookers, some of whom backed away and hid their faces.
In Shizuoka, steel doors of the Omu Shinrikyo building were forced open with chain saws, and 30 members who tried to prevent police entry to that facility were being held in a roped-off area at the scene.
Omu Shinryoku is led by Chizuo Matsumoto, 40, a native of Kumamoto who uses the religious name Shoko Asahara. A licensed acupuncturist, Asahara in 1984 founded a yoga group he named Omu Shinsen no Kai. The group became more religiously oriented and in 1987 was renamed Omu Shinrikyo.
The cult believes in a combination of ancient yoga and primitive Buddhism, and worships Shiva, the god of destruction. It became a registered religious organization in 1989.
In order to obtain absolute happiness, members train in facilities where they are isolated from family and society while studying Asahara’s lectures.
The cult has attracted increasing attention in recent years as a result of complaints from members’ families and from disaffected members themselves, who have said that members were being pressured to donate their possessions to Omu Shinrikyo and were being prevented from leaving the organization.
Five years ago, a group of members’ families sued the group, alleging that their children were being brainwashed. Japan’s supreme court ordered 10 children under 12 years old returned to their families.
In a 1989 case, a lawyer representing families of other cult members disappeared with his wife and their infant. The three have never been found. In a case reported this month, a man alleged that he had been locked up in an Omu Shinrikyo facility for five months while members pressured him to contribute his property to the organization.
The kidnapping investigation to which today’s raids were related was the abduction on Feb. 28 of Kiyoshi Kariya, a Tokyo city employee whose sister belonged to the cult and reportedly was under pressure to donate her property to it.
The day before the attacks on the Tokyo subway system, police reportedly found a rented car that was used to abduct Kariya; inside, they reportedly found fingerprints of Kariya and of members of Omu Shinrikyo. Three cult members were charged in the case.
Omu Shinrikyo has denied any involvement in the Kariya case, the subway attacks and the sarin-byproducts incident in Yamanashi. At a press conference yesterday, a lawyer for the organization repeated those denials and asserted that police and the public were looking for a scapegoat.
Members of the sect were convicted of trying to bring toxic chemicals into Australia 18 months ago.
Dr. Tomomasi Nakagawa, 31, and biochemist Seiichi Endo, 33, were arrested for carrying hydrochloric acid on an airplane, the newspaper West Australian reported today.
The two were caught at Perth Airport on Sept. 9, 1993, with crates of mining equipment and the acid, disguised as hand soap, when they arrived on one-month tourist visas, the paper said. They were given fines.
Omu Shinrikyo claims about 10,000 members in Japan and about 30,000 in the former Soviet Union, where it advertises itself on radio. It operates a Moscow branch headquarters, and a Russian-made helicopter was among cult properties discovered today in Shizuoka.
The three central Tokyo subway lines contaminated in the attack resumed full operation yesterday after military chemical-warfare specialists in masks and protective clothing sprayed chemicals to neutralize the gas. Police said the substance was deadly sarin gas.
Riders were resigned to having to use the train, even if they were still frightened. “The subway is scary, but we have no other means of transportation,” 42-year-old passenger Hideyuki Tanaka said yesterday.
In Tokyo, few people can get around without trains. Most workers are reimbursed for train commuting expenses.
In the subways, signs urged riders to be on the lookout for suspicious packages.
And at hard-hit Tsukiji subway station, signs read, “We hereby express our condolences to the victims and our sympathy to those who were injured.”
Trash cans were removed from 148 stations because of fears of another attack. The stepped-up security extended to Tokyo airport, where announcements every half hour appealed to passengers to inform police of any suspicious objects or people.
Material from the Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.