Cult fugitives 'have nerve gas'

As the Japanese authorities began the long process of dissolving the religious cult Aum Shinri Kyo, police reported yesterday that fugitive members of the group may still have stocks of deadly nerve gas, writes Richard Lloyd Parry.

A senior Aum member, charged with the murder of 11 commuters in the sarin- gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March, told police that Yasuo Hayashi, a leader of the cult's "science and technology ministry", is carrying 30g (1oz) of VX, a military nerve gas 1,000 times more lethal than sarin.

Mr Hayashi, who is believed by police to have been present when sarin was released on the subway, is one of eight wanted members still at large. Posters bearing their photographs have been displayed at stations and on public noticeboards all over the country.

At the Tokyo District Court, public prosecutors and representatives of the metropolitan government filed petitions calling for the cult to be stripped of its legal status as a religious organisation. The petitions cite the cult's alleged manufacture of sarin, in violation of the Religious Institution Act which prohibits organisations engaging in activities which "harm the general welfare of society".

If a dissolution order is granted, liquidators will dispose of the cult's assets, estimated at millions of pounds, although individual followers will be free to continue their worship.

The move has caused a surprising amount of unease in Japan, where memories of wartime militarism and the suppression of civil rights are still vivid. The laws governing religious groups were introduced after the war, following the persecution of Buddhist groups by the military authorities. No group has since been disbanded for "anti-social activities", and politicians have wavered between the wish to satisfy widespread anti-Aum sentiment and a reluctance to raise sticky questions of constitutionality and civil liberties.

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