Japanese cult in the dock again

Policeman linked to gun attack. Richard Lloyd Parry reports

Tokyo - When Takaji Kunimatsu, chief of the National Police Agency, was shot last March, in daylight, it was hard to imagine a greater humiliation for the Japanese police.

Ten days before, in spite of numerous clues that they were up to no good, members of the Aum Shinri Kyo religious group released sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway, killing 12 people and injuring 5,500. By the time police raided the cult's headquarters two days later, most of the ringleaders had escaped. Finally, Commissioner-General Kunimatsu, in charge of the investigation, was shot and almost killed outside his home by a man who escaped on a bicycle.

Yesterday, things got worse. After 18 months' silence, the police said they had a suspect, a motive and a confession for the shooting. The would- be assassin is 31, a member of Aum Shinri Kyo - and is a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police Department.

Ten days after the sarin attack, at the height of the belated police raids, Gen Kunimatsu was walking to his car with an aide when a masked man shot him in the chest, back and abdomen.The weapon is believed to have been an American Colt magnum, a rare item in Japan, where guns are strictly controlled. The bullets were hollow-nosed, to explode on impact, and the attacker appeared to be trained. After a six-hour operation, Gen Kunimatsu's life was saved.

The finger of suspicion inevitably pointed at the cult. But when it came to the identity of the attacker, there was only speculation. The yakuza, Japan's mafia, were mentioned, and the use of a foreign weapon led to theories about a foreign hitman. But police sources quoted in the media yesterday said an unidentified 31-year-old had confessed to the crime.

He was stationed at Tsukiji, the stop on the Tokyo subway worst affected by the nerve gas, and his membership of Aum Shinri Kyo was discovered when police seized a computer disk from another arrested cult member. He was subsequently transferred to a driving-test centre. After six months of "voluntary" questioning, he allegedly confessed.

Yesterday's news is the latest in a number of disclosures linking the cult with the security forces. More than 100 past or present members of the military were members of Aum, which used them to gather classified information on nuclear and biological weapons and pass on intelligence on any action being planned against the sect. Despite the biggest investigation in Japanese history, the police have yet to apprehend seven Aum members suspected of playing a key part in the cult's crimes.

Every police box and railway station in Japan carries a poster displaying an Aum hotline number and portraits of the seven wanted people have also been posted on balloons and paper lanterns. The trials of cult leaders who have been caught have been proceeding and are likely to take some time.

Last week the trial of the Aum guru, Shoko Ashara, which was expected to last as long as 10 years, was held up when he went into convulsions in court. He said he been granted a vision by a "goddess" and insisted that Yoshihiro Inoue, one of his former lieutenants, be spared cross-examination. "Witness Inoue, I may appear to you to be mentally disturbed," he said. "But will you try to levitate from where you are?" When Mr Inoue was forced to continue his testimony, Mr Asahara shouted that "if you force his cross-examination, all of you will die". He has since been confined to padded cell.

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