TOKYO, March 20 (Reuters) – Tokyo rush hour 10 years ago began like any other for ticket inspector Tsutomu Ohmuro, then subway commuters began to choke.
“Passengers were thrown into a panic,” said Ohmuro, 40, one of thousands subjected to a sarin nerve gas attack that killed 12 people on jam-packed subways on March 20, 1995, and left over 5,000 sick.
On Sunday, subway workers and victims’ relatives observed a moment of silence at 8 a.m. — about the time of the attacks by members of a doomsday cult.
The incident shattered Japan’s sense of public safety as investigators discovered that Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect) cult members had released deadly sarin by puncturing gas-filled plastic bags with sharpened umbrella tips.
Ohmuro remained on the job that morning, helping frightened commuters make their way outside until he collapsed himself.
“There was nothing but stillness and silence creeping through the station,” he said.
“I felt helpless as people’sfootsteps grew faint. I was left alone there before losing consciousness.”
He still struggles to come to terms with the horror, and his anger at Shoko Asahara, 50, the cult guru convicted in February 2004 of masterminding the attack.
“That was unforgivable,” he said.
CULT STILL GOING
The cult admitted involvement in the attack 1999. A year later it changed its name to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, saying it was now benign.
But members remain under police surveillance.
“There are still followers who vow to offer their lives to kill others if they are told to do so by the guru,” Takashi Ohizumi, director-general of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, told Reuters in a recent interview.
Ohizumi say the cult had signed up new recruits. However, the number of devotees has dwindled in the decade since the attack. Live-in cult members number around 650. Another 1,000 are lay members in Japan and there are 300 members in Russia, according to the Japanese government.
That compares to about 11,400 members in Japan and about 40,000 in Russia in 1995.
After a trial lasting nearly eight years, Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was sentenced to death by hanging for a series of crimes including ordering the attack. No one knows for sure what his motive was.
Media reports have said Asahara, now in a detention centre, does not speak, is incontinent, and seems unaware of his surroundings.
Twelve other cultists have been sentenced to death for their roles in the attack. None has been executed yet, and Asahara’s own appeal could take years.
“We would like his death sentence to be confirmed soon,” said Shizue Takahashi, 58, a representative of the Subway Sarin Incident Victims Association, who lost her husband in the attack.
The group has been seeking financial compensation from the central and Tokyo metropolitan governments, without success.
Asahara set up the cult in 1987, drawing on Buddhist and Hindu meditation and other teachings.
The chubby, nearly blind guru predicted that the United States would attack Japan and turn it into a nuclear wasteland.
Japanese concerns over public vulnerability have grown since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
Japanese police, security and military officials have been put on extra alert, though experts say progress has been patchy.
“Mindful of March 20, we can’t relax,” said Munetaka Imaizumi, an official at subway operator Tokyo Metro.
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