In a controversial move pitting public safety against religious freedom, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on Thursday approved the use of a Cold War law to disband Aum Supreme Truth, the religious cult that allegedly launched a deadly poisonous gas attack on Tokyo subways earlier this year.
The approval by Murayama–whose Socialist Party has long opposed the anti-subversion law as a danger to democratic freedoms–gave police the go-ahead to seize the cult’s assets and forbid members from practicing their religion. By late Thursday, police had seized $44,000 in cash, a Russian helicopter and personal computers, along with cult offices and property.
The sweeping move, taken after a seven-month investigation, marks the first time the powerful law has been used against an organization since its enactment in 1952 as a weapon against communism during the height of the Cold War. The law may be used if an organization is proved to have engaged in violent, subversive activities and if there is evidence that it will continue them in the future.
In announcing the move, Justice Minister Hiroshi Miyazawa said the cult still poses a public safety threat due to its anti-state ideology and suspected stockpiles of weapons and toxic chemicals. Cult leader Shoko Asahara and his followers are accused of killing 11 people and sickening more than 5,500 in the March poison gas attack. They are also suspected of killing seven people in a similar, June 1994 attack in the city of Matsumoto, and of slayings and kidnappings of anti-cult activists.
“There has not been the slightest change in Asahara’s dangerous religious teachings and political ideology, or in the sect’s absolute obedience to Asahara,” Miyazawa said.
But many lawyers and social activists viewed the move with alarm. They argued that Supreme Truth members are already being prosecuted under criminal law. In addition, police have already seized the group’s weapons and chemicals in numerous raids on its Mt. Fuji headquarters, and Supreme Truth officials had pledged to end dangerous religious rituals and drop their doomsday teachings, which envisioned a war with the state.
Many attorneys here regard the Subversive Activities Prevention Law as unconstitutional and warned that its use against Supreme Truth would set a dangerous precedent by allowing the government to suppress dissident groups under the guise of maintaining social stability.
Critics say the move is the latest in a series of actions to strengthen state control over organizations that might challenge the establishment. An anti-yakuza law passed a few years ago allows police to disband any group if a certain percentage of its members have a criminal record–raising fears among some Christian groups that take in former scofflaws that they could be summarily dissolved. And a recently passed revision to the Religious Corporation Law allows the state to more easily monitor religious organizations and initiate investigations into their activities.
For many, the anti-subversion law brings back dark memories of the pre-World War II years, when a similar public safety law was used to quash virtually any group that dared to oppose the government or express dissent. That law was abolished during the postwar U.S. occupation, but as fears of communism rose worldwide in the early 1950s, the anti-subversion law was passed to thwart attempts to overthrow the government.
It has been used against individuals in the past–all leftists–but never an organization.
Seiji Iishiba, a lawyer and former police official, said application of the law against Supreme Truth was tricky because the statute doesn’t punish a group for an actual act committed. Instead, based on a suspicion of future criminal activity, the group is simply forbidden to exist–a key reason many scholars view the measure as unconstitutional.
Yasuhiro Okudaira, a constitutional law scholar from International Christian University, said there is no justification for the law now that the Cold War is over.
“People aren’t thinking about the law,” Okudaira said. “They are just thinking about how to get Aum. That is not the way laws should be used.”
The Japan Civil Liberties Union vehemently opposed the enactment of the law 43 years ago, and still opposes it today.
“This is bad,” Executive Director Yoichi Kitamura said. “When the [law] is applied to a corporation instead of an individual, no one can tell any longer what is permissible and what is not.”
But not all are critical of Murayama’s decision. Iishiba, the lawyer, said Japan’s history has been one of extremes: from total social control before the war to complete freedom afterward.
“We have finally reached just the right balance,” he said. “Like Chinese herbal medicine, this will take effect slowly but effectively.”