Aum Shinri-kyo and Related Controversies
Government intelligence officers will interview the AUM Shinrikyo doomsday cult to decide whether a tough watch over the group will continue after the scheduled surveillance period expires at the end of January.
Designated as a group "that could undermine public order," the cult has been under surveillance by the Public Security Investigation Agency and ordered to report its activities regularly.
Yet the term of the special watch is slated to finish Jan. 31 leading the government agency to file a request with the Public Security Examination Commission that the strict surveillance continue.
In response to the agency's request, AUM members on Tuesday tabled a report apparently asking the commission to turn it down. Under the law, surveillance renewal reviews normally involve simply screening submitted requests.
However, the commission decided to give the cult a chance to explain its reasons for requesting that the government watch be lifted.
TORONTO - Canada added Hezbollah to a list of banned terrorist organizations Wednesday, responding to pressure from Jewish leaders and opposition lawmakers in Parliament.
The Kurdistan Workers Party of Turkey and Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult were also put on the list, which was created after the Sept. 11 attacks to target the financing and activities of terrorist groups.
The list now has 16 groups that are banned from the country. Anyone belonging to them or helping them faces a possible 10-year prison sentence.
Before Wednesday's announcement, Jean Chretien's Liberal Party government distinguished between Hezbollah's military wing, which carries out terrorist attacks, and the group's political and social wings that hold seats in the Lebanese legislature and conduct charity work.
Recent statements attributed to a Hezbollah leader called for expanding terrorist attacks outside the Middle East. That convinced Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Graham to ban the entire organization.
The opposition Canadian Alliance has said Hezbollah should be on the list because it has fund-raising and other operations in Canada. Last week, the Jewish group B'nai Brith in Canada filed a court motion seeking to force the government to add Hezbollah to the list of banned groups.
Considered a resistance movement in Lebanon, Hezbollah seeks the destruction of Israel.
The Kurdistan Workers Party wants to create an independent Kurdish state in southeast Turkey and northern Iraq and has fought a 15-year war against Turkey. The head of the party, Abdullah Ocalan, is serving a life sentence in Turkey after his capture in Kenya in February 1999.
Aum Shinrikyo, founded by Shoko Asahara in Japan in 1987, was responsible for 12 deaths in a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.
Fumihiro Joyu, the controversial leader of AUM Shinrikyo, broke a 10-month public silence Monday to speak out against plans to place the doomsday cult under continued surveillance by public safety officials.
The Public Security Investigation Agency filed a request Monday with the Public Security Examination Commission to keep Aum Shinrikyo under surveillance for another three years.
The surveillance period is set to expire in January.
The agency requested the extension on the grounds that cult founder Shoko Asahara, who stands accused of masterminding the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and another deadly nerve gas attack the previous year, "still wields power over the cult" and can order indiscriminate mass killings.
The commission will determine in early January whether to extend the period after studying the contents of the request, including the reason the agency gave for filing it, and hearing opinions from Aum on the matter.
The focus will be whether the cult still poses a threat to the public and is capable of committing mass murder. The commission is expected to make its decision around early January.
The cult has made it clear it will file a lawsuit against the surveillance if the extension is authorized.
In August, Aum filed a petition with the security agency, demanding it cancel its plan to keep the cult under surveillance for another three years. The cult also filed a petition with the committee in November requesting that it no longer be subject to surveillance, claiming it no longer poses a public threat.
Acting under the powers of the current surveillance authority, the agency has kept 88 Aum facilities in 16 prefectures under watch since January 2000.
The agency also decided to file the petition on the grounds that high-ranking cult members, including Fumihiro Joyu, who were senior members at the time of the 1995 Tokyo subway attack, are still active.
The agency alleged that the cult maintains a secret doctrine ordering followers to kill, and said members still attempt to justify the sarin attacks.
Asahara, 47, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has been on trial since April 1996 for allegedly ordering the subway attack of March 20, 1995, which killed 12 people and injured thousands, the June 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that killed seven and injured hundreds, and a raft of other major crimes. He has pleaded innocent to all counts.
Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama said she expects the commission to make a speedy and appropriate examination of the issue.
The Tokyo District Court in June 2001 dismissed a lawsuit filed by the cult that demanded an end to the surveillance.
But the court acknowledged the cult's claim, saying it is "difficult to admit that Matsumoto is still a member of the cult, and there is no evidence that his doctrine is still maintained within the cult." It added that the continuation of the surveillance should be decided after carefully examining all aspects of the situation.
Aum spokesmen expressed their opposition to the agency's move Monday, saying the cult, which has renamed itself Aleph, has no potential to commit another indiscriminate mass attack.
"The agency fell short of presenting evidence to prove our danger or whether (Asahara's) influence on us could lead to another mass murder," said Shigeru Sugiura, an Aum spokesman during a news conference at the district court.
In supporting their claim, the cult members said they believe Asahara no longer has the will and power to direct the cult to commit more crimes. But they also said the guru still has a "purely religious" influence over them.
TOKYO - A Japanese government security agency sought authorization on Monday to continue its close surveillance of a doomsday cult blamed for a deadly sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground railway system in 1995.
The Public Security Investigation Agency called for a three-year extension of its monitoring activity, saying the Aum Supreme Truth cult still posed a threat to the public.
"The (current) three-year surveillance period ends at the end of January so we have filed for an extension," said a spokesman for the agency, which is affiliated to the Justice Ministry and investigates organizations that are a danger to the public.In its filing, the agency said that Aum founder Chizuo Matsumoto still wielded influence over the cult.
Matsumoto is the real name of Shoko Asahara, who has been on trial since April 1996 for 13 crimes, including planning and ordering the deadly attack on the subway t hat killed 12 people and made thousands ill.An extension would allow agency officials to continue to conduct inspections of Aum premises, and the cult would have to disclose information on its property, leaders and membership.The agency spokesman said the filing also cited the fact that cult members who were senior members at the time of the attack were still active, plus the existence of a cult doctrine that hinted at or clearly encouraged murder.
The Public Security Examination Commission, which received the filing, is expected to decide by the end of January whether or not to grant the extension, he said.Kyodo news agency said the cult planned to file a lawsuit demanding revocation of the extension if one were to be granted.
The cult, which has changed its name to Aleph - the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet - says it is now a benign religious group.But the government said last March that the cult, which in the past preached that the world was coming to an end and that it had to arm itself to prepare for calamities, was sti ll dangerous.A number of cult members have already been sentenced to death for the 1995 attack.
According to the annual report of the Public Security Investigation Agency released in March, the number of cult followers living in cult property at the end of last year was around 650, and in addition there were some 1,000 "lay members." The cult numbered 12,000 members before the 1995 attack.
MITO, Ibaraki Pref. (Kyodo) The Mito District Court on Tuesday ordered the town government of Sanwa, in Ibaraki Prefecture, to pay about 2 million yen to 21 members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult for refusing their applications to register their residencies.
The town rejected the applications in April 1999, saying the applicants could jeopardize the peaceful lives of local residents.
The Aum members filed a suit saying their basic human rights are being violated because they are unable to register for national health insurance without residency documents.
However, the town government has stood by its decision, saying it was appropriate and that it had rejected the applications partly out of consideration of the desire of local residents.
A number of local governments across Japan have refused to allow members of the cult -- responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and injured thousands more -- to register as residents.
The Public Security Investigation Agency has decided to file a request with the Public Security Examination Commission to keep Aum Shinrikyo under surveillance for another three years and reported the decision to Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama, sources close to the case said Saturday.
The agency has been monitoring the activities of the cult, which has renamed itself Aleph, under an anti-Aum law, which stipulates the cult must be left alone once the commission determines it no longer poses a danger to the public.
The Public Security Investigation Agency wants to extend the surveillance on the grounds that Aum guru Chizuo Matsumoto, still on trial for the 1995 nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway system as well as other crimes, "continues to wield power over the cult" and can order indiscriminate mass killings.
Acting under the powers of the current surveillance authority, the agency has kept 88 Aum facilities in 16 prefectures under watch since January 2000.
The current period of surveillance for the cult will expire at the end of January. The agency plans to file the request at the beginning of December.
Matsumoto, 47, known to his followers as Shoko Asahara, has been on trial since April 1996.
He continues to deny the charges against him.
Twelve people died and thousands were injured in the March 20, 1995, subway gassing.
The cult filed a petition with the Public Security Investigation Agency in August demanding that it cancel the policy of keeping the cult under surveillance for another three years.
It also filed a request with the Public Security Examination Commission on Nov. 6 that it cease to be subject to surveillance, arguing it no longer poses a public threat.
OSAKA - Three Aum Shinrikyo cult members have filed a damages lawsuit against the city of Suita, Osaka Prefecture, for rejecting their residency registration applications last month, Suita officials said Tuesday.
The three lodged the lawsuit with the Osaka District Court, demanding a total of 3 million yen in compensation and revocation of the city's decision on Oct. 25 to deny their applications for residency registration, city officials said.
According to the officials, Suita has so far prevented 11 Aum members from registering as residents.
Aum members have filed lawsuits twice against the Suita Municipal Government for similar reasons.
In June, the Osaka High Court turned down Suita's appeal of a lower court ruling in which it was told to compensate two Aum followers for rejecting their residency applications.
On Nov. 7, the Osaka District Court ruled in the second lawsuit that the city revoke its decision not to accept two followers' applications.
A number of local governments in Japan have refused to allow members of the cult, which is responsible for the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 and injured thousands, to register as residents.
Aum now calls itself Aleph.
WASHINGTON - Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult, responsible for a 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway and other heinous crimes, has the potential to mount a cyberterrorist attack on the United States, according to a recently released CIA report.
It says Aum, which renamed itself Aleph in January 2000, "is the terrorist group that places the highest level of importance on developing cyber skills" and "identifies itself as a cyber cult and derives millions of dollars a year from computer retailing."
Members of the doomsday cult have been found guilty of crimes including the Tokyo subway gassing of March 20, 1995 in which 12 people died and thousands were injured.
The declassified CIA document was submitted to a special Senate committee in April to discuss threats to U.S. national security.
The report also addresses the al Qaeda terrorist network's sources of funding from a global network of individuals and charities and its ability to conduct cyberattacks on infrastructure that depend on electronic or computer systems.
The document shows how the U.S. was still in the dark in April regarding North Korea's secret nuclear weapons program as it cited other issues such as the country continues to harbor terrorists linked to a 1970 hijacking of a Japan Airlines plane that was forced to the North.
North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program surfaced two weeks ago after Washington revealed that Pyongyang has admitted that it has maintained a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons development in violation of a 1994 bilateral nuclear accord between the North and the U.S.
The document, written in April, also stated that "the possibility that state collapse in North Korea could lead to reunification" of the Korean Peninsula could not be excluded.
As the number of tips to police on the three members of the Aum Supreme Truth cult on the nationwide police wanted list has declined, the Metropolitan Police Department has announced it will continue to offer 6 million yen in reward money for information leading to the arrests of the three for another year.
The three members on whom information is sought are Makoto Hirata, 37, Katsuya Takahashi, 44, and Naoko Kikuchi, 30.
The rewards for information leading to the arrests of the suspects were first offered in October 1999 by a group of former MPD officials.
According to the MPD, 144 tips were sent in by mail and fax on a special form to qualify for the reward by 2001. However, only one person has sent in such a form this year.
Phone calls and e-mails brought in another 1,349 tips in the first year the rewards were offered. This year, 223 tips were sent in by September, none of which was specific enough to investigate.
The victims' families have become concerned that the Aum-related incidents may have been forgotten.
According to the MPD, Kikuchi and Takahashi remained in hiding in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, until November 1996. However, their whereabouts have been unknown since then.
Hirata was spotted meeting with another Aum member, Yasuo Hayashi, 44, in August 1995 in Nagoya.
TOKYO - The wife of the doomsday cult guru accused of masterminding the 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas attack was released from prison Tuesday, ending her six-year jail term, media reports said.
Tomoko Matsumoto, 44, was expected to return to her home outside of Tokyo where her three children live, Kyodo News said.
The Justice Ministry refused to confirm her release, citing privacy concerns.
In September 1999, the Tokyo District Court found that Matsumoto conspired with her husband, Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara, and several disciples to kill a fellow cultist.
The court later reduced her seven-year sentence by one year, after she appealed and apologized to the victims' parents. She claimed she was present at the murder but did not commit the 1994 killing.
Matsumoto said in a statement that she plans to divorce her husband and stay away from the group, according to Kyodo.
So far, 10 cultists have been sentenced to death. However, none have been executed.
Asahara is still on trial for allegedly planning the subway gassing that killed 12 and injured thousands, as well as other killings.
Despite a police crackdown following the gassing, the cult has regrouped under a new name, Aleph, with about 1,000 members.
The group remains under surveillance by Japan's Public Safety Agency, which considers it a threat.
TOKYO - A former leader of the doomsday cult that carried out a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995 was sentenced to death Friday, court officials said, making him the tenth member of the group given the death penalty for the attack.
Seiichi Endo, 42, was sentenced to die for helping produce the deadly sarin gas used by Aum Shinri Kyo in the March 1995 attack, which killed 12 people and sickened thousands, said Tokyo District Court official Emi Shimoyama.
Endo was also found guilty of helping make sarin used in a June 1994 attack on a quiet residential area in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto that killed seven people.
Prosecutors said Endo deserved the death penalty because he knew his handiwork would be turned on innocent people, possibly killing them.
So far, prosecutors have requested death sentences for 11 cult members. With Friday's verdict, 10 have been sentenced to die, but some of those sentences are on appeal and none has been carried out.
Aum guru Shoko Asahara is still being tried for allegedly masterminding the subway gas attack and other killings.
Endo joined Aum in 1987, when he was a graduate student of virology at Kyoto University, one of Japan's most prestigious schools. In addition to nerve gas, the cult was developing biological weapons and vowed to topple the government to set off a chain of events that would lead to Armageddon.
After the nerve gas attack led to the arrest of all its top leaders, the cult was declared bankrupt in March 1996. But it has since regrouped under a new name, Aleph, and is believed to have more than 1,000 members.
Police say the cult's membership includes 650 hardcore followers who have cut family and social ties and live at cult facilities. More than half the current members are believed to have joined after the subway attack.
The group is under surveillance by Japan's Public Safety Agency, which has warned that it remains a threat.
Executions in Japan are carried out by hanging.
Cultists still pay homage to their alleged evil guru.
Saying alleged mass murderer Chizuo Matsumoto still holds his cult followers in thrall, the government is expected to tack on three more years of surveillance of Aum Shinrikyo, sources said.
The Public Security Investigation Agency plans to extend current surveillance to January 2006 because the cult is still dangerous, sources said.
The current monitoring term expires at the end of January 2003.
The agency will file an extension request with the Public Security Examination Commission by the end of this year.
The surveillance began in January 2000. It was authorized by a 1999 law to control organizations involved in indiscriminate mass murder. Creation of the law was driven by Aum's sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 12 people and other crimes.
Aum ``must still be kept under surveillance'' as it is just as dangerous as before, the sources said.
The cult has since renamed itself ``Aleph.''
The sources said members of the cult still regard Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, as their holy leader.
Matsumoto, 47, is on trial on charges of masterminding the subway attack and another sarin gas poisoning in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994. Seven people died in the Matsumoto attack. Thousands were sickened in the two attacks.
The organization control law can be applied if there remains a danger of mass murder, the mastermind of mass murder still holds influence, or members involved in mass murder still belong to the group.
Since January 2000, agency inspectors checked 85 Aum facilities in 16 prefectures and determined Matsumoto's grip over the cult has not waned-meeting the requirement for extending the surveillance.
The agency also considered the opinions of people living near Aum facilities when making its decision. Eighteen requests to keep Aum under continued watch were filed by local governments and communities, including Tokyo's Setagaya Ward.
Aum officials opposed to the extension said there is no need for monitoring by the agency as ``it is already kept under watch by security police.''
The cult said it is impossible for followers to get directions from Matsumoto because he is locked up in the Tokyo detention house.
``Matsumoto has lost his influence over the organization, and there is no risk of recurrence of indiscriminate mass murder attempts,'' an Aum official said.
The organization control law has been controversial from the beginning, with opponents saying it violates the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion.
In June 2001, the Tokyo District Court dismissed Aum's request that the agency's monitoring be terminated.
The ruling said the step was constitutional, but noted that ``there should be specific danger'' of a group starting to prepare for mass murder before such a measure is taken.
Yasuhiro Okudaira, a professor emeritus of constitutional studies at the University of Tokyo, lauded the court decision as ``strictly in tune with the principle of freedom of religion.''
He said careful examination of the changes during the past three years is important before the agency's surveillance of the group is extended.
The Justice Ministry's Public Security Investigation Agency will ask the Public Security Examination Commission for permission to keep Aum Shinrikyo under surveilElance for another three years, sources said Monday.
The agency has inspected 85 Aum facilities in 16 prefecEtures since January 2000, monitoring the group's activities under an anti-Aum law.
The law, under which the cult is obliged to report the names of its members and details of its assets to security authorities, gives the commission final say over whether the group is a danger to the public and whether ongoing surveilelance is necessary.
The agency has decided that the inspection should continue because Aum founder Shoko Asahara, 47, currently standing trial for his role in crimes including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, still holds influence over Aum members, the sources said.
TOKYO - The wife of Shoko Asahara, founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, will be released from a prison in Wakayama Prefecture on Oct 15, informed sources said Wednesday.
Tomoko Matsumoto, 44, was arrested in 1995 on suspicion of murdering an Aum member with her husband and others. She was sentenced by a high court to six years in jail in 1999.
Matsumoto has said she has left the cult, which killed 12 people and injured thousands in its sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, among other crimes, but public security authorities will monitor her movements after her release, the sources said.
Matsumoto appealed against the high court ruling and promised she would never return to the cult, which now calls itself Aleph, but the Supreme Court dismissed her appeal and confirmed her sentence in July last year.
According to the high court ruling, Matsumoto conspired with her husband Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, 47, and other senior Aum members to strangle Kotaro Ochida, 29, with a rope at an Aum facility in Kamikuishiki in Yamanashi Prefecture in January 1994.
Asahara has been tried on 13 cases including the subway attack.
A policeman in body armor stands watch just a short walk past a shopping arcade. Farther down the narrow road, the watch intensifies more uniformed police, joined by city officials and neighbors.
They are watching Aum Shinri Kyo, or what is left of it. And though the doomsday cult that shocked the world with its nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways is much diminished, no one expects the round-the-clock vigil to end soon.
Seven years ago Aum unleashed sarin nerve gas on Tokyo commuters, killing 12 people and sickening thousands in one of the worst acts of urban terrorism until the Sept. 11 attacks.
Now renamed Aleph, the cult no longer has a sprawling compound in the foothills of Mount Fuji, and its membership has fallen from more than 10,000 at its peak to about 1,650.
Founder Shoko Asahara's trial for murder, begun more than six years ago, still drags on, but many of the cult's other leaders have already been convicted and imprisoned.
The cult has renounced Asahara, acknowledged Aum's past crimes and paid 330 million yen ($2.8 million) in compensation to the victims.
But public distrust has been heightened by inspections of the cult's offices and living areas that found materials suggesting it still reveres Asahara.
Its very visible presence here and other enclaves scattered around the country suggests the cult is alive and well.
"We live in constant fear, it's like living with terrorists," said Noriko Chiba, who lives near the five-story brick apartments and two smaller adjacent buildings that the cult now uses. "Aum committed all these crimes in the past how can you be sure they won't do it again?"
Experts are divided on that question.
Masaki Kito, a lawyer who has taken on several cults in Japan, believes the threat is strong and goes beyond Japan.
"Aum is not just a domestic problem," he said, alluding to revelations that in the 1990s the cult had an extensive network of followers in Russia and developed biological weapons in Australia. "If the authorities cannot contain it, Aum can spread sarin again, perhaps overseas next time."
Aum's membership includes 650 hard-core followers who have cut family and social ties and live at cult facilities. More than half of all Aum members are believed to have joined after the subway attack. The cult continues to run a profitable computer business and gets substantial donations.
Police, however, say the group does not pose an immediate threat to society.
Even so, officials warn against a false sense of security.
A five-year period during which police are allowed to keep close watch the group expires in January, and an investigator who spoke on condition of anonymity said it is keeping a low profile in hopes that the surveillance will not be renewed.
Fumihiro Joyu, one of the few Aum leaders at the time of the gassing who did not face serious charges, is now the cult's leader. "Our current group has undergone reforms and abandoned the use of any type of violence," he said in a statement published on his Web site. "We are not a terrorist group."
But the neighborhood association's fears have not been allayed since the cult moved in nearly three years ago.
It has collected 30,000 signatures demanding the surveillance be extended. Its representatives keep watch on Aum from a tiny booth as cult members in baggy yoga pants come and go, occasionally stopped for brief questioning by uniformed police.
The neighborhood has campaigned to keep the cult members from finding jobs nearby. To keep cult children out of local schools, the town office refused to register them until the Tokyo District Court called that unconstitutional.
AUM Shinrikyo, the doomsday cult that lethally gassed the Tokyo subway system, has made millions of yen charging people for religious leaders to pat their heads, the Mainichi learned Friday.
AUM leaders admit charging 1.5 million yen for cult figurehead Fumihiro Joyu to tap followers on the head for five minutes in a ceremony it calls "Shakty Pat."
AUM followers claim Shakty Pat sends a sacred energy through believers' bodies.
AUM, declared bankrupt in the wake of the 1995 subway gassing, picked up at least 100 million yen by reviving the practice. About 70 people are believed to have paid the enormous sum to undergo Shakty Pat this year.
"It's a fact that we did carry out Shakty Pat during a seminar," Hiroshi Araki, the cult's spokesman said. "It has made an enormous contribution to the cult in the past and some people made considerable donations. We haven't since sought any other donations."
AUM stopped charging followers for Shakty Pat in the wake of the mid-'90s crimes members of the cult committed. However, public safety officials believe they have begun the practice anew to gather funds to strengthen the cult for Joyu. Joyu is the effective leader of the cult as its guru, Shoko Asahara, remains in detention while standing trial on 17 counts of murder.
YOKOHAMA - The Yokohama District Court on Wednesday ordered Yokohama's Naka Ward to process a moving-in document submitted by a priest in the AUM Shinrikyo cult. The court found the action illegal and ordered the city to pay the man 8,000 yen in compensation. Presiding Judge Tamio Okamitsu said he found no reason to justify the ward's refusal.
The man demanded the court acknowledge the illegality of the ward's action and wanted 1 million yen in compensation. According to the verdict, the 41-year-old priest moved into an AUM facility in the ward on July 30, 2001, and submitted a document to the ward the following day. But the ward's resident-registry section refused to process it, telling him it would look into his move.
On paper at least, the life of Hiroshi Araki looks like something out of Franz Kafka. Whenever he steps outside his flat, at any time of the day or night, men with clipboards make a note of the time he leaves, who he is with and which way he is going. They are there, rain or shine, 24 hours a day, never fewer than three of them and sometimes a dozen.
Some are elderly retirees, local volunteers with time on their hands. Some wear uniforms, and some are plain-clothes men with policemen's eyes. Once a month they raid his flat and those of his friends, and confiscate files and computer disks. "The average person who experienced this kind of thing would have a nervous breakdown, but it's been going on for seven years so we've almost got used to it," says Mr Araki. "At least they've stopped following me."
Mr Araki is a skinny, earnest young man with a liking for yoga and meditation; he has committed no crime and threatens none. So why are the forces of justice in Japan treating him like an active member of a terrorist cell? The answer lies with the yoga group of which Mr Araki is a member.
Today it calls itself Aleph, and its teachings and practices are indistinguishable from the harmless mumbo-jumbo purveyed by any number of neo-hippy groups all over the world. But until two years ago it was known by a different name: Aum Shinri Kyo - apocalyptic religious cult, perpetrator of mass murder, and the least desirable next door neighbours in Japan.
Founded in the 1980s by a half-blind guru known as Shoko Asahara, the cult embarked on a series of bizarre crimes that culminated in the world's first ever terrorist use of chemical weapons. On 20 March 1995, in an apparent attempt to hurry along the Armageddon predicted by their guru, Asahara's followers released home-made sarin nerve gas in the Tokyo subway.
Twelve people died, and more than 5,000 were blinded, choked and nauseated. A series of arrests followed and so far a number of Aum members have received death sentences for their part in the killings (the trial of the guru continues). The cult was declared bankrupt and, having been so devastatingly unmasked, it was assumed that it would quietly disband. But, to the irritation of the Japanese police and the alarm of many Japanese, it survives.
According to Mr Araki, who acts as the group's spokesman, it has 520 resident "monks" and 600 non-resident "laymen" - far fewer than the 11,000 who once followed Asahara.
Whenever they are asked, officials insist Aleph remains "dangerous". Even the US State Department includes it on its list of international terrorist groups. But despite the monthly search warrants, constant surveillance and a fervent desire to catch Aleph doing something, no one can explain what the danger is.
Aleph, both in person and on its website (http://english.aleph.to) has repeatedly apologised for the horrors of 1995. It has promised to pay 4bn yen (£22m) in compensation to the victims and their families; so far Y300m has been handed over.
"Mobilising every possible criminal legal code and interpreting these laws as liberally as possible, they tried to criminalise many petty offences on an unprecedented scale," wrote Akira Fukuda, a criminal law professor and one of the few to express disquiet about official treatment of the group.
The truth is that the notion of a potentially resurgent Aum justifies police budgets and staff levels that otherwise would be hard to justify. The failure to prevent the subway attack remains the Japanese police's greatest ever humiliation and it is difficult not see an element of revenge in the petty abuses they dish out on the cult's successors. "It's the police and the mass media who are stirring up feelings against us," said Mr Araki. "What the police want to do is create an enemy and draw attention to it so they can create a scapegoat for society."
A Japanese high court reduced a prison sentence imposed on a former senior member of the Aum Supreme Truth sect by three years, saying he had shown deep remorse for his crimes.
The Tokyo High Court cut the 18-year sentence previously handed to Masahiro Tominaga, 33, by the Tokyo District Court in 1999, for crimes including the attempted murder of the governor of Tokyo with a parcel bomb in 1995.
"His criminal responsibility is grave, but he has apologized to victims and shown deep remorse by paying compensation to them," presiding Judge Shogo Takahashi told the court Friday.
Tominaga, a doctor who trained at Japan's elite Tokyo University, had pleaded not guilty at his trial, saying he was under the control of sect leader Shoko Asahara.
The doctor was one of the senior advisors in the cult known as the "emperor's secretariat."
Tominaga was also convicted of the attempted murder of an anti-sect lawyer and attempted cyanide gas attack at Shinjuku Station, Japan's biggest train station.
Last month, the Tokyo district court sentenced to death Tomomitsu Niimi, 38, a former officer of the doomsday cult for his role in a deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway lines and other murders.
He was the eighth Aum follower to be sentenced to hang for his crimes, while dozens of others, including Asahara, are still on trial.
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