Doomsday group’s buildings raided
TOKYO — Police arrested the leader of the Sublime Truth doomsday cult and 14 of his followers this morning on charges of murder and attempted murder in connection with the nerve-gas attack March 20 on the Tokyo subway system. Twenty-six others still are being sought.
Twelve people died and 5,500 were sickened in the attack, when packets containing deadly sarin gas were placed on trains crowded with morning commuters.
The cult leader, Shoko Asahara, a nearly blind, 40-year-old acupuncturist who has prophesied the end of the world by 1997 and claimed that US troops have sprayed him and his followers with nerve gas, was apprehended in the cult’s complex of buildings at Kamikuishiki, near Mount Fuji, where the gas used in the attack is believed to have been made.
The cult has an estimated 10,000 followers in Japan, 30,000 in Russia and smaller numbers in the United States and Germany. Spokesmen for the cult have denied repeatedly that it had any involvement in the subway attack and other recent crimes, such as the attempted assassination of a top police official who was investigating the group.
More than 2,000 police participated in the raids, which were launched at about 5:40 am. It took them four hours to locate Asahara in the labyrinth of Kamikuishiki’s No. 6 Satian building.
Police said Asahara was meditating in a hidden room between the building’s second and third floors when they found him.
There was no immediate word on the physical condition of the guru, who claimed in a video sent to Japanese media March 25 to have suffered serious injury from being targeted with nerve gas himself. He was driven away in a van rather than in an ambulance that had been standing by; his face could not be seen through the heavy wire mesh of the van.
Asahara’s wife, daughters and bodyguards also were inside the building, a three-story wood and steel structure containing living quarters for the Asahara family and other cult officials, and several training rooms for members.
Though no evidence has been publicly presented, Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama reflected the widespread belief in political circles, the media and the public that the cult and its leaders are guilty and that the subway bombing case, which has deeply shaken Japan’s image of itself as a safe country, is at an end.
“This was a very difficult incident, involving wide areas, very organized, and by a religious organization,” Murayama said at a news conference shortly after Asahara’s arrest, citing a report from the national security agency
blaming the cult for the attacks. “It took a long time, and the police faced many difficulties.”
Murayma said he believed, after some further consultations between national and local authorities, the cult would be prohibited from operating in Japan.
He cautioned that “there are still some possibilities that some sarin is hidden,” and said 80,000 new officers will be added to the country’s police forces to help restore people’s sense of security.
The cult came under suspicion almost immediately after the subway attack, when the chemical used was identified as the same one that had been involved in an incident near a cult facility in Matsumoto, west of Tokyo, in which seven people died and 600 were sickened last summer.
In the ensuing weeks, numerous raids were conducted at the cult’s facilities around the country and nearly 200 cult members were arrested on a variety of charges. The raids turned up much chemical-processing machinery in cult compounds, and tons of chemicals — including components and residues of sarin gas.
However, the warrants issued last night charging Asahara and 40 others with murder and attempted murder were the first official allegations of direct responsibility for the subway attack.
The decision to move appeared to have been based on two developments.
First, the cult’s chief chemist, who has been under arrest since last month for harboring a fugitive, reportedly gave police information over the weekend that led investigators to conclude that cult does not now possess large quantities of sarin.
Then, early yesterday morning, police arrested Yoshihiro Inoue, 25, a close aide to Asahara and chief of the cult’s so-called intelligence ministry. Inoue is suspected of having led the subway attack.
Police had been cautious about moving directly against Asahara fearing revenge attacks.
Masses of police, some in riot gear and some suits to protect them from chemicals, moved into the Kamikuishiki complex around 4:30 this morning. At about 5:40, they used metal cutters and crowbars to force open the doors of No. 6 Satian, a large building which, from the outside, resembles a factory. Soon afterward, they hammered open the door of a neighboring building with a residential facade and began searching it as well.
Unlike previous raids, during which members screamed at investigators and resisted being removed from cult facilties, today members left the buildings calmly. In all, police said, 130 cult facilities were raided.
The national Cabinet met while the raids were taking place. After the meeting, Minister of Education Kaoru Yosano, whose responsibilities include enforcement of laws regulating religious organizations, said the search of No. 6 Satian was slowed because the building contained many small, locked rooms. He said there was no electricity and police were forced to search the buildings with flashlights.
The Metropolitan Police Agency said officers were stripping steel from the walls of the building and probing for hidden rooms. Officers were digging a hole in the floor of a hospital building adjoining No. 6 Satian in search of a hidden room, and they reported finding a hidden mezzanine, with blockaded starirways, between the first and second floors on No. 6.
Officials said that based on the warrants alleging direct cult responsibility for the subway attack, they would seek a court order to deprive the cult of its religious corporation status.
The warrants charge that the cult used dummy companies to purchase materials to make sarin. Officials suspect the cult began planning to make sarin in the fall of 1993, and succeeded in making it for the first time last spring in the No. 7 Satian building.
Tokyo media reported today that the murder charge against Asahara is based on confiscated documents that allegedly show the cult leader ordered the construction of No. 7 Satian and the sarin-production project. There are also reports that one or more cult members in custody on other charges have confessed to carrying bags on sarin into the subway system.