New pieces to a 9-year-old puzzle

Police investigations into the shooting of the nation’s police chief more than nine years ago reached a major milestone last week with the arrests of four men, including a former police officer. Around 8:30 a.m. on March 30, 1995, a gunman fired several shots at Mr. Takaji Kunimatsu, then director general of the National Police Agency, wounding him seriously as he was leaving his Tokyo home for work.

The former police officer who was arrested, Mr. Toshiyuki Kosugi, was a follower of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which carried out a sarin nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995. Mr. Kunimatsu was shot following police raids on cult facilities. The other three suspects were all senior Aum members.

The shooting incident, one of the most serious criminal cases involving the terrorist cult, is still shrouded in mystery. According to investigators, Mr. Kosugi confessed to the shooting in 1996 but was not arrested at the time because of a lack of evidence. It remains unclear whether the cult guru Shoko Asahara was involved. The arrests of the four men Wednesday, however, raise hopes of a breakthrough.

It is a complicated picture. Mr. Kosugi and two of the three former senior Aum members were arrested on charges of attempted murder. The fourth suspect, a former aide to Asahara, was arrested in connection with the 1995 bombing of the home of a religious scholar who was critical of the cult. Metropolitan Police Department officials are said to believe that all four conspired with another man who pulled the trigger in the shooting of Mr. Kunimatsu. That man, officials say, could be a former member of the cult who is now appealing a death sentence in the killing of an anti-Aum lawyer and his family.

In the series of Aum-related criminal trials to date, about 190 defendants have received lower-court sentences. The trials reached a benchmark in February when the Tokyo District Court sentenced to death cult founder Asahara on 13 counts, including causing the deaths of 26 people in the sarin attacks and other incidents.

A number of crucial questions remain unanswered, though. Among them, of course, is the mystery surrounding the shooting of Mr. Kunimatsu, who planned the police raids on Aum facilities. Former police officer Mr. Kosugi reportedly told investigators that he had dropped the gun in a river, but divers never found it. In the absence of physical evidence, his confession was held in doubt.

Witness accounts, as well as bits of apparent evidence, suggest that the shooting was plotted carefully to deceive police. For instance, a North Korean badge was left on the scene to suggest the shooter’s nationality. Also, immediately after the shooting, an unidentified man, apparently posing as the shooter, was seen fleeing on a bicycle.

From evidence presented at many of the Aum trials, it has been determined that Asahara ordered followers to disrupt police investigations. If the badge was used for this purpose, it is likely that Mr. Kosugi’s confession was also aimed at misleading investigators. By doing so, the cult was perhaps trying to hide some vital facts about itself.

It now appears that the MPD has solid evidence: traces of gunpowder detected in Mr. Kosugi’s overcoat. The gunpowder, investigators say, is identical to that used in the bullets that wounded Mr. Kunimatsu. This finding is the result of a high-tech analysis conducted at an advanced scientific facility. The coat in question is seems to be the key. Mr. Kosugi reportedly told investigators that he had lent it to another cultist. If that’s true, that cultist may well be the gunman. We hope that further investigation will soon lead to the arrest of the triggerman.

It reflects poorly on the nation’s law enforcement that such a major criminal incident — which came close to killing the highest-ranking police officer — remains unresolved after more than nine years. Speedy and productive investigations are essential to gaining the public’s trust in the police. Police have been involved in a spate of scandals in recent months, including illegal accounting practices in Hokkaido and the falsification of official documents in Hyogo Prefecture. One way to burnish their tainted image is to conduct a successful probe into the shooting incident and apprehend the chief criminal.

There is also an urgent need to reinforce efforts to improve security. Crime statistics show an increase in the number of felonies and a drop in crime-clearance rates. Aum Shinrikyo, which now calls itself Aleph, may not be a terrorist group anymore, but it remains under observation by public-safety authorities. The cult’s continuing activities, though peaceful on the surface, are disconcerting. The public cannot rest assured until the Kunimatsu shooting is unraveled once and for all.

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