Aum Shinri-kyo and Related Controversies

"Adherents of Armageddon (Review of Robert Lifton's book "Destroying the World to Save It)"

by Gary Anderson ("Washington Times", December 7, 1999)

Over the years much has been written concerning the banality of evil and the Nazis. But several post-World War II groups have created unprecedented savagery and barbarism within the confines of existing nation-states without state sponsorship and under the nose of otherwise competent state security mechanisms.

Aum Shinrikyo is one such organization. Many Americans will recognize the organization as the one responsible for the sarin nerve gas attack that killed 11 and wounded 5,000 in Tokyo during 1995.

Robert Jay Lifton details the history of this cult and its charismatic and reptilian leader Shoko Asahara in "Destroying the World to Save It." Although shocked by the first use of chemical weapons by a non-governmental organization, most Americans went on to other things that spring and forgot about this cult of death. Mr. Lifton gives us some frightening reasons to reflect on this kind of threat.

Asahara is legally blind although he has some sight. Sent to a school for the blind at an early age, he began a pattern of bullying and manipulation that would extend until his arrest for instigating the subway bombings. Asahara admired Hitler, but was a practitioner of a sick blend of pseudo-Buddhist theology, '60s collectivism, '70s "est" philosophy and blatant hucksterism. He blended almost everything that has been wrong with the 20th century into a totalitarian collectivism of fanatical followers willing to do almost anything to please him.

Asahara's cult preached redemption and a better life through Armageddon. His followers believed that their victims would be reincarnated to a better life through their deaths at the cult's hands.

Mr. Lifton struggles, with some success, to explain why a large group of young Japanese, including a large number of affluent, middle-class people with college backgrounds, and a disturbing percentage of medical professionals, would turn to an organization with such violent motives. He finds some interesting potential answers. The lack of an ethical basis in Japanese religious tradition and Eastern religious practice in general is one potential culprit.

Eastern religion stresses following practices by leaders, gurus, or sensei/teachers. Scrupulous adherence to the dictates of these teachers is the highest virtue. Questioning whether the teacher's values are the right ones does not receive a high premium.

Mr. Lifton also cites some diverse factors in post-World War II Japanese society that could have caused the cul's rise. The destructive effects of defeat in the Pacific War, apocalyptic postwar media such as the "Godzilla" movies and postmodern angst all get some examination. However, the main threat seems to be low self-esteem among certain individuals in a society that values conformity above all.

Lest we Americans think we are immune from this, readers are encouraged to go to a mall and watch determinedly non-conformist American youth conform absolutely to the social norms of non-adult fashion. If there is a common denominator of the stories of the young people who joined Aum Shinrikyo, it is their headlong rush from the admittedly confining norms of mainstream Japanese society into the absolutely confining world of the cult with its doomsday philosophy.

Mr. Lifton's book is fascinating in its description of the ordinariness of the young people who flocked to Asahara's banner. To some extent, it becomes tedious reading as the biographies of the cult's recruits are recounted. If banality leads to evil these are very evil people indeed. The cult had killed before the Tokyo subway incident, and Japan's security forces were suspicious of it; however they were limited by their postwar constitution's strict ban on appearing to persecute fringe religions of which Japan has a plethora.

Mr. Lifton is no stranger to this field. A distinguished professor of psychology and psychiatry at John Jay College, he has made a career of studying and writing about the psychology of mass badness and man's misbehavior to other men.

If there is any good news in the book, it is that chemical and biological agents are much more difficult to turn into the weapons than many think. The cult had attempted numerous chemical and biological attacks before the subway incident. Disturbingly, some of these were aimed at U.S. military installations in the zany hope that it would cause some deadly American response. This well-researched book should give those who watch fringe groups for signs of hostile intent some good guidelines for indications and warnings of potential disaster.

(See CESNUR's review of Lifton's book)


"Prosecutors demand death for cultists in subway attack"

("Japan Times", December 7, 1999)

Prosecutors demanded the death penalty for two former Aum Shinrikyo followers Tuesday for carrying out the March 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

The two are also charged with illegally manufacturing firearms.

Kenichi Hirose, 35, and Toru Toyoda, 31, stand accused of releasing sarin on subway trains during the morning rush hour in an attempt to avert the attention of investigative authorities from Aum. The gassing killed 12 people and injured more than 5,500.

The prosecution also demanded life in prison for Shigeo Sugimoto, 40, for chauffeuring one of the gas-attackers to a train station and for his involvement in the killing of followers in January and July 1994.

"Since the criminal liability of Toyoda and Hirose is so grave, I can only ask for the ultimate punishment," a prosecutor said.

The prosecutors said they did not ask for capital punishment for Sugimoto because he took part in the gassing as a driver and because he owned up to the 1994 killings of two followers.

According to the prosecutors, Hirose released sarin under the order of cult founder Shoko Asahara on the Marunouchi Line near Ochanomizu Station on March 20, 1995, leaving one dead and injuring about 350 people.

Toyoda pierced two plastic bags containing sarin with an umbrella on a Hibiya Line train near Ebisu Station, killing one and injuring more than 500 people, they said.

Sugimoto chauffeured Yasuo Hayashi to Ueno Station, where Hayashi boarded a Hibiya Line train to release sarin, the prosecution said. Hayashi's release killed eight people.

Hirose, a graduate of Waseda University, and Toyoda also joined in the cult's attempt to manufacture 1,000 rifles between June 1994 and March 1995. Only one rifle was produced.

In addition, Toyoda, who received a master's degree in physics at Tokyo University, took part in the May 1995 cyanide gas attack at Shinjuku Station by producing the gas, prosecutors said.

After that attack failed, Toyoda and other members sent a letter bomb to then-Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima later in the month, they said. The bomb tore off the fingers of the governor's secretary.

Prosecutors added that Sugimoto lynched and strangled to death his fellow follower Toshio Tomita in July 1994 and cremated his body in a microwave incinerator.

He also gave his approval when Asahara asked Sugimoto and other members whether to kill Kotaro Ochida, a former follower of Aum, in January 1994, they said.

During their opening hearing in December 1995, Hirose and Toyoda owned up to the charges against them while Sugimoto claimed he was only obeying orders and had no intention of committing murder.

Lawyers for the defense will deliver their final argument on March 2.


"Two anti-Aum laws promulgated"

("Japan Times", December 7, 1999)

Two laws aimed at cracking down on the activities of Aum Shinrikyo were promulgated Tuesday by the Justice Ministry.

The laws -- one to allow authorities to step up monitoring of the cult's activities and the other to facilitate disposal of Aum's assets -- were enacted by the Diet on Friday.

The laws will take effect Dec. 27, and the Public Security Investigation Agency, after consulting with the National Police Agency, is expected to ask the Public Security Examination Commission on the same day to consider putting Aum under surveillance, Justice Minister Hideo Usui told a regular news conference Tuesday.

The commission will decide whether to allow the surveillance within 30 days once discussion of the request commences. A decision will be made by early February at the latest, he said.

One of the two laws targets any organization that has committed or attempted "indiscriminate mass murder during the past 10 years." Although the law does not name Aum as its intended target, government officials have explained that it will be aimed exclusively at the cult.


"Prosecutors seek death, life in jail for 3 AUM members"

(Kyodo News Service, December 7, 1999)

TOKYO, Dec. 7 (Kyodo) - Prosecutors on Tuesday demanded the death penalty for two senior members of the AUM Shinrikyo cult and life imprisonment for a third for their involvement in the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

Prosecutors said in the Tokyo District Court that Toru Toyoda, 31, and Kenichi Hirose, 35, conspired with AUM founder Shoko Asahara to release sarin gas in five trains on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995.

Prosecutors sought a less severe sentence for Shigeo Sugimoto, 40, who served as a driver during the subway gassing, after concluding that his confession on the mob killing of two AUM members contributed to police investigations.

Twelve people were killed and more than 5,300 injured in the subway gassing.

The three suspects have admitted the charges, but said they were not responsible for the charge because their minds were controlled by Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, and that the guru masterminded the attack.

The prosecutors said the three men became involved in the development of chemical weapons and the subway gassing to put into practice Asahara's own teachings on Vajrayana, which are unrelated to the form of Buddhism prevailing in Tibet, Bhutan and Mongolia.

Toyoda has also been indicted on three instances of attempted murder, including an attempt to blow up the Tokyo metropolitan government office in Shinjuku Ward. Hirose also faces charges of violating a law against the illegal manufacture of firearms.

Although the prosecutors criticized Sugimoto for committing ''a cruel and inhuman crime'' for helping strangle AUM followers Kotaro Ochida and Toshio Tomita, they said he confessed to the murder while under questioning for the subway gassing.

In particular, ''his voluntary statement contributed to the exposing of Tomita's murder,'' they said.

The prosecutors said that Ochida, 29, a pharmacist at an AUM-run hospital, was lynched January 1994 after breaking into an AUM facility to try to rescue his mother while Tomita, 27, was killed in July 1994 after he was falsely accused of spying and trying to poison Asahara.

Among the 14 AUM members, including Asahara, indicted for the nerve gas attack, three have been handed the sentences sought by prosecutors.

Former top doctor Ikuo Hayashi was found guilty of murder in the subway attack and sentenced to life in prison in May 1998. He did not appeal.

Senior member Masato Yokoyama, one of five charged who actually carried out the gassing, was sentenced to death by the same district court in September, while Koichi Kitamura, accused of providing transport for Hirose, was sentenced to life imprisonment last month.

They are both appealing the rulings.

Asahara is on trial in connection with at least 17 major charges, including masterminding the sarin gas attack and for ordering murders.


"2 bills enacted to tighten grip on AUM"

by Yuji Kobayashi ("Mainichi Shimbun", December 4, 1999)

Doomsday cult AUM Shinrikyo took a step toward oblivion Friday after the House of Councillors passed into law two controversial bills aimed at hobbling the religious group. One of the bills - which pundits expect will be enacted by the end of the year to counter a possible AUM resurgence led by Fumihiro Joyu, the out- spoken cult mouthpiece due to be released from prison on Dec. 29 - will permit law enforcers to monitor organizations implicated in serious crimes, inspect their facilities and order them to report their activities every three months. The other will permit the seizure of AUM assets to use them to compensate the victims of AUM-related crimes. Justice Minister Hideo Usui hinted to reporters Friday that he may ask Public Security Examination Commission (PSEC) officials to inspect AUM facilities within 1999 now that they are permitted to do so. Although neither of the bills mentioned AUM specifically, it was clear from the outset when they were first presented to the Diet on Nov. 2 that they were targeting the cult. AUM has admitted to carrying out the deadly March 1995 sarin gas attack that killed 12 and injured thousands and has been accused of a myriad of other crimes. The first of the bills, which passed through the upper chamber with the support of the ruling coalition - the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and Komeito - and the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, set restrictions on any organization that has committed "indiscriminate mass murder during the past 10 years" from acquiring land or facilities. It also requires organization members to file every three months a report including their name, address and assets. The bill also ensures the PSEC will be able to decide whether to inspect an organization's facilities upon a request from the Public Security Investigation Agency. If the PSEC approves an inspection, its officials will join police to probe shady facilities. As for the second bill, it will make it easier to seize AUM assets so that they can be used to compensate the victims of the cult's crimes. It allows receivers to seize assets taken before an organization is declared bankrupt, even if the assets have been transferred to other entities. AUM became a pariah in the wake of the Tokyo subway attack. It was declared bankrupt in 1996 and was a targeted to be disbanded under the Subversive Activities Prevention Law the following year. However, authorities decided not to activate the law, saying at the time that AUM no longer posed a threat to society.


"Crocodile tears from AUM?"

("Mainichi Shimbun", December 4, 1999)

The AUM Shinrikyo cult has kept a low profile since announcing a halt of religious activities in September, but it's still organizing meetings and maintains most of its practice halls across the nation, public-safety officials said on Friday. In the midst of public criticism, AUM Shinrikyo announced on Sept. 29 that they would close practice bases, stop holding seminars and study meetings, and suspend the propagation of its dogma and invitations to join the group. On top of that, the cult for the first time admitted earlier this week that it committed the sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system. Officials regard these moves as simply tactical. "Their announcement to halt activities and acknowledgment of subversive activities using sarin nerve gas are only a gesture designed to evade a crackdown under new laws" that target the cult, a public safety official said. AUM Shinrikyo had closed only four of 15 main practice halls as of the end of November, according to the unnamed official. Eleven other facilities, including the "truth library" in Tokyo's Suginami-ku, have not yet been closed. Followers have begun evacuating the Nagoya office and other halls are scheduled to shut down, but they have never abandoned their activities completely, public safety officials said. Followers who had lived in two of the four closed facilities in Tokyo still maintain their resident registration. Some followers keep the same resident registration but often change their addresses in an apparent attempt to cover their tracks from authorities and the public, the officials said. Hundreds of AUM members live in Tokyo, many of them in Adachi-ku, near the Tokyo Detention House where AUM founder Shoko Asahara is currently being held. The cult apparently also runs personal-computer factories in Adachi-ku to earn operating funds. Residents of areas where cult members live are casting doubt on the effectiveness of tightened regulations under the new laws. "What we face is AUM's dogma, which we believe doesn't hesitate to include murder," said Takashi Masegi, deputy mayor of Fujioka, Gumma Prefecture, and the head of the city's task force handling AUM-related issues. About 90 AUM members live in the city. "Are these laws going to be able to regulate AUM, which still intends to increase membership?" he asked. In Tokigawa, Saitama Prefecture, the local government asked AUM members to let village officials into their facility for an inspection, but the cult refused their request. "We cannot evaluate the effectiveness of the laws for the moment," a Tokigawa official said. Nine AUM members have registered their address in the village. "Under the current circumstances, we will have to keep checking (the nine) AUM members even after the laws took effect," the official said.


"AUM apology"

(Editorial, "Mainichi Shimbun", December 4, 1999)

The AUM Shinrikyo cult on Wednesday admitted for the first time that some of its members were involved in criminal activity including the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway. While some critics have characterized the cult's admission as "mere lip service," the cult may be ready to turn over a new leaf. In a statement sent to the media, the cult said that it "cannot deny" that some cult members committed crimes. It also extended a sincere apology to victims and their family members, and promised to pay them as much compensation as possible and to consult with the bankruptcy receiver on this matter. Several trial verdicts have already confirmed that the cult's leader, Chizuo Matsumoto (Shoko Asahara), ordered cult members to carry out various crimes. But Wednesday's statement is by no means a sign that the cult has fully accepted the content of these verdicts. In fact, it leaves many questions unanswered. While admitting that some members carried out crimes, the cult fails to point the finger at any particular individual. How much compensation does the cult plan to extend to victims, and how does it plan to pay them? And is the cult prepared to sever its ties with its founder, Matsumoto? There are some skeptics who believe that AUM Shinrikyo issued the statement in order to avoid coming under the purview of legislation that will give authorities additional powers to monitor the group's activities. The language that the cult employed in its statement certainly helps to foster this impression. The crimes carried out by the AUM Shinrikyo cult, including the sarin gassing incidents, shocked the nation and remain fresh in our memories. Even if the apology issued by the cult proves to be sincere, it will not erase the deep suspicion with which many people throughout this country view the cult. Much more time will have to pass before the public will be ready to accept that the cult has changed its ways. To reassure residents who live near cult facilities, the Diet has moved quickly to secure passage of a bill to increase surveillance of the group. However, we must not forget that this bill has stirred up considerable controversy, and that the Diet has failed to conduct a proper debate on its constitutionality. While the Diet certainly was pressured by residents and public opinion to take action against AUM Shinrikyo, this will be the first law that has been passed in the postwar era designed specifically to crack down on a particular organization. We must not forget that this emergency measure is an exception to the rule. It must not be cited as a precedent by those who wish to enact similar legislation down the road. During Diet deliberations, some witnesses pointed to the need for counseling and therapy for the current and former followers of the group in order to facilitate their re-entry into society. If the government fails to provide such assistance and simply cracks down on the cult, it could drive the cult's members underground and create a new source of anxiety for the public.


"Japanese Parliament Passes Bills to Limit Aum Cult Activities"

(Bloomberg, December 3, 1999)

Tokyo - Japan's parliament passed legislation that will allow authorities to limit activities of the Aum Supreme Truth cult, responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway gas attack that killed 12 and injured more than 5,000.

The legislation will allow authorities to conduct surveillance and to search the premises of religions cults suspected of mass murder.

Acting Aum leader Tatsuko Muraoka earlier this week provided the first admission from the cult that some members were involved in the subway gassing. He offered an apology and promised unspecified compensation to victims.

The legislation comes as Japanese authorities are investigating the activities of two other religious organizations.

Earlier this week police searched the more than 70 facilities nationwide of the Honohana Sanpogyo cult for allegedly defrauding members through high fees.

Police last month took into custody nine children belonging to members of the Life Space cult, following raids on the group's office and other facilities. Investigators said the children were being kept from school, in violation of the law.

Still, the legislation passed today is aimed specifically at the Aum cult, through the mass murder provision.

Upper house lawmakers passed the legislation in a 197-33 vote. Another bill to ban religious cults suspected of mass murder from acquiring land or facilities passed in a 225-5 vote. The Lower House passed the bills Nov. 18.

The Aum cult bought land and held control of numerous businesses. Its former leader, Shoko Asahara, once ran for a seat in the Tokyo city assembly. Asahara is now being tried on 17 criminal charges, including allegations he ordered the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack.


"Anti-cult bill passes"

("Asahi Shimbun", December 3, 1999)

The Upper House passed anti-Aum Shinrikyo legislation today, which means authorities could start monitoring the cult's activities by the end of January.

Central government officials said they plan to file necessary documents about Aum this month to the Public Security Examination Commission.

After the documents are filed, the commission must decide whether to begin monitoring the cult within 30 days.

If the commission agrees that Aum activities need observation, officials with the Public Security Investigation Agency and prefectural police will be given the authority to inspect Aum facilities.

Aum also must regularly report on its activities, including property purchases.

The bill was supported by the ruling coalition-the Liberal Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and New Komeito-and Minshuto (Democratic Party of Japan).

The cult on Wednesday admitted for the first time that its followers were involved in a series of crimes, including the 1995 sarin gas attack in Tokyo that killed 12. Its statement also apologized to the victims.

However, senior Justice Ministry officials said the director-general of the Public Security Investigation Agency intends to file the documents because Aum Shinrikyo has not abandoned its principle that justifies murder. The officials say that Aum continues to pose a threat.

A clause states that the law will be applied to ``organizations that were involved in mass murder during the past decade, including the use of sarin gas.''

The bill sparked concern about freedom of expression and organization guaranteed in the Constitution. Lawmakers said the application of the law will be limited to Aum.

Since its leadership was arrested in 1995, Aum has regained its strength and is currently embroiled in conflicts with residents living near cult facilities.


"Cult feeling the heat as Crackdown Laws Debut"

by Kanako Takahara ("Japan Times", December 3, 1999)

Friday's enactment of two laws specifically targeting Aum Shinrikyo may give investigative authorities new ammunition with which to battle the cult, and Aum's leadership will have to perform a balancing act between self-preservation and public acceptance.

The swiftness with which the Diet passed the two bills aimed specifically, but not nominally, at Aum was triggered by the escalation of disputes across the nation between residents and the cultists in their midst.

Public support for quick steps to restrict the activities of a cult branded as a threat to society led to speedy Diet deliberation during a session in which most other key bills are facing fierce objections from the opposition camp.

But despite the accelerated deliberations, some lawyers and scholars continue to voice concern over the new laws, warning they may be unconstitutional.

Mizuho Fukushima, a lawyer and Upper House member of the Social Democratic Party, said law enforcement bodies will be able to apply the new laws to illegal activities that were committed before their enactment -- something forbidden under the Constitution.

"In addition, investigative bodies can make pre-emptive crackdowns on a group," although the Constitution allows state powers to take action only after a crime is committed, she added.

However, the creation of anti-Aum legislation was to some extent inevitable to put an end to the situation communities were facing, where many local governments refused to accept residency applications of Aum members while residents launched campaigns demanding that the followers move out.

In addition, supporters say, if law enforcement bodies continued to restrict the cult's activities by applying existing laws alone, they would have to keep arresting followers on minor charges such as trespassing -- a move that could be criticized as abuse of state power.

Aum itself has not been blind to the mounting public criticism. Over the past few months its leaders have been trying to keep a low profile while plotting a course of action.

As the laws were poised for final Diet deliberations, Aum offered long-awaited apologies Wednesday and promised to compensate by the end of January those victimized by the heinous crimes that its members stand accused of.

These include the March 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, in which 12 people died.

It was the first time the cult apologized for the series of crimes blamed on its followers, and coupled with the enactment of the anti-Aum laws, these latest moves will most likely ease public anxiety to a certain extent.

But skeptics say the statement is yet another one of Aum's ploys to avert anticipated moves by investigative authorities to invoke the new laws. Some also say the cult is buying time until the release of charismatic senior cultist Fumihiro Joyu later this month, hoping he can chart a new course for Aum.

"It is a step forward that the cult offered apologies," said Shoko Egawa, a journalist who has extensively covered Aum. "But we'll have to wait until the end of January to see what (Aum's) real intention was (in making these remarks)."


"Japan OKs Laws To Restrain Cult"

(Associated Press, December 3, 1999)


By The Associated Press TOKYO (AP) -- Japan's upper house of Parliament approved two bills Friday aimed at clamping down on the doomsday cult accused of a deadly nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways.

One measure allows the government to monitor groups that have committed mass murder, said Hiroshi Sasamoto, an official in the upper house's bill division. A target would be the Aum Shinrikyo cult, whose guru is on trial for the 1995 nerve gas attack that killed 12 people and sickened thousands.

Under the law, Aum can be placed under surveillance and will be required to report on its activities every three months. The Justice Ministry will be able to inspect Aum Shinrikyo's facilities whenever it deems necessary.

The other law approved Friday will make it easier to seize the assets of organizations that commit mass murder, and use them to compensate victims, said Sasamoto.

The laws take effect Dec. 27. They are controversial in Japan because of the broad power held by police under the government in the years before and during World War II.

The bills were proposed after a resurgence in Aum Shinrikyo's activities, including recruiting efforts and events venerating the guru.


"Aum admits role in crimes The cult says it will provide `as much compensation as possible' to its victims, but gives no details"

("Asahi Shimbun", December 2, 1999)

Aum Shinrikyo admitted Wednesday for the first time its involvement in a series of crimes its members committed or were involved in, adding it will apologize to its victims and offer them ``as much compensation as possible.''

Crimes attributed to the cult include the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo's subway system that left 12 people dead and thousands sickened.

In a statement issued by acting head Tatsuko Muraoka, the cult said it ``cannot deny that a portion of its members were involved in the crimes.''

The statement also offered an ``apology from the heart'' to the victims and their families.

But while Muraoka, 49, said Aum will compensate the victims and their families, she gave no specific figures.

Observers say the cult appears cornered by growing calls from communities to oust people connected to Aum.

They say that Aum was forced to make Wednesday's statement as two bills aimed at cracking down the cult are set to pass the Upper House in several days.

The bills-including one designed to crack down any organization that has committed ``indiscriminate mass-murder'' during the past 10 years, which is apparently aimed at Aum-were to pass the Upper House Committee on Judicial Affairs today.

In her Wednesday statement, Muraoka said the cult would discuss the details of compensation with its bankruptcy administrator. The cult was declared bankrupt in March 1996.

But Saburo Abe, Aum Shinrikyo's bankruptcy administrator, criticized the offer of compensation by pointing out that Aum members do not have any personal assets, so it is ``nonsense'' to say each member will honestly offer compensation.

Aum's statement-issued after being discussed by its most senior decision-making body-said nothing about the cult's current relationship with Aum founder Chizuo Matsumoto, who faces 17 indictments for some of the Aum's worst excesses.

On Sept. 29, Aum announced it would refrain from cult activities and review the crimes for which it is held responsible. It did not apologize for any criminal acts, however.

Wednesday's statement appears to have been a follow-up to the September announcement.

In a television program Wednesday, Muraoka said she would ``further watch the court discussions'' in answer to a question about Matsumoto's culpability for the crimes.

She said the cult will discuss disclosure of its assets and details of compensation ``as soon as possible,'' and would address these matters in January.


"Cult in Gas Attack Apologizes, But the Japanese Are Skeptical"

("The New York Times", December 2, 1999)

TOKYO -- The doomsday cult behind the gas attack in Tokyo's subway in 1995 has taken responsibility for a number of such incidents and promised compensation, but victims' relatives dismissed it as a self-serving move.

"We now offer our sincere apology for the victims and their family members," the group's acting leader, Tatsuko Muraoka, said in a statement late Wednesday, adding that the cult, Aum Shinrikyo, would offer "as much compensation as possible." She declined to discuss details.

The group had not previously admitted its culpability.

The former leader, Shoko Asahara, is on trial for masterminding at least 17 crimes, including the nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system in March 1995 that killed 12 people and injured several thousand. A number of members have been convicted or are being tried on numerous charges.

The group is believed to have about 2,100 followers.

A bill approved by the lower house would provide for monitoring of groups that have committed mass murder. The bill is expected to become law this year. The threat of scrutiny is probably what prompted the apology, victims' relatives said.

"Why would they make such a statement now?" asked one relative, Tomoyuki Ooyama, who was quoted by Kyodo News Service. "They want to escape police surveillance under the new law." His son-in-law, who was an anti-cult lawyer, was killed by Aum members, along with Ooyama's daughter and infant grandson.

Teruo Itoh, whose son was one of seven people killed in the cult's first gas attack, in Matsumoto in 1994, dismissed the apology, saying, "It is too late."

But the leader, Ms. Muraoka, said the group had decided to apologize after watching members stand trial. "We have reached the conclusion that we can't deny the fact that some members of our religious group were involved," she said.

Offices of the national police agency and the justice ministry were not available for comment.


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