Aum must prove itself ‘harmless’

Japan Times, Feb. 8, 2003 (Editorial)

Three years’ surveillance of the Aum Shinrikyo cult (now called Aleph) by the Public Security Investigation Agency, in accordance with the Antisubversive Activities Law, expired at the end of January. But the Public Security Examination Commission, or PSEC, has decided that surveillance should continue for another three years because the danger of Aum perpetrating an act of indiscriminate mass murder cannot be ruled out yet.

Aum appears ready to file an administrative suit to overturn the decision, arguing that continued surveillance violates freedom of religion guaranteed by the Constitution. The commission states that the decision on extended surveillance is not unconstitutional because it does no more than place necessary and rational restrictions on basic human rights in order to protect public welfare.

One reason cited by the PSEC for concluding that a danger still exists is that Aum still urges followers to show absolute devotion to the former leader of the cult, Chizuo Matsumoto (known in the cult as Shoko Asahara), who is now on trial in Tokyo District Court. Another reason is that Mr. Fumihiro Joyu and other senior members of the cult at the time of the 1994 sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and on the Tokyo subway in 1995, still hold top positions in the group, and that Aum sermons are said to justify past criminal conduct. Furthermore, the commission said Matsumoto still exerts what can be called absolute influence on cult members and that changes in Aum’s doctrine have not become a reality.

According to the National Police Agency, Aum has branches at 26 sites in 15 prefectures while maintaining residential facilities at 150 locations. There are about 650 persons who have retired into Aum and about 1,000 lay believers. The cult continues, as before, to procure funds from followers and to actively engage in missionary work. The PSEC, therefore, has concluded that there is still a danger of the cult carrying out indiscriminate killings.

The problem is whether the commission was correct in agreeing to continue surveillance on the grounds that an “abstract danger” exists. In its decision three years ago, the PSEC’s interpretation was that “for the recognition of a danger, a specific and realistic fact is not necessary; generally speaking, an abstract fact will suffice.” The latest decision is based on this reasoning.

However, in the administrative suit that Aum filed over the previous decision on surveillance, the Tokyo District Court in 2001 ruled that, for the application of surveillance, “it is necessary to prove that there exists a specific danger that an act of indiscriminate mass murder may be committed.” The court urged a strict application of the Antisubversive Activities Law, stating that “if there is no such danger, then restrictions on the freedom of religion cannot be permitted.”

It ruled that surveillance was only constitutional if applied in a limited manner and criticized the PSEC’s previous decision as a mistaken interpretation of the law. However, the court did approve the surveillance in recognition of Matsumoto’s continued influence and other relevant factors. In the commission’s latest decision, some members argued that three years are too long as a period of punishment. As the Tokyo District Court indicated, the continuation of strict regulations could violate the constitutional guarantees of the freedom of religion and freedom of association.

If Aum files an administrative suit again this time, the focus is likely to be on whether Matsumoto still has enough influence to order and cause an act of indiscriminate mass murder. More than seven years have passed since Matsumoto was arrested. Mr. Joyu claims that Matsumoto no longer has absolute influence and that the need for surveillance has ended, since Aum has taken steps to prevent the repetition of criminal acts.

However, local governments and residents in places where Aum has facilities are concerned that if Matsumoto gave an order, there would be no way of knowing what cult members might do. Some people even call for more forceful restrictions on the cult’s activities.

Instead of simply repeating the hollow words that the cult is no longer dangerous, Aum must prove — in a visible manner — that it is harmless. More than anything else, it must carry out fundamental reform of its structure so that the public no longer feels any danger. Unless it is prepared to go that far, Aum will not be accepted by society.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Saturday February 8, 2003.
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