Japanese police hold cult lawyer 1/36point

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The Independent Online


in Tokyo

There was a poetic justice about events yesterday morning when Yoshinobu Aoyama, lawyer of the Japanese religious cult Aum Shin Rikyo, turned up at a Tokyo police station to visit a detained Aum member, only to find himself placed under arrest.

It was no surprise, probably not even to Mr Aoyama himself. Aum Shin Rikyo, of which he is a high-ranking "priest", is under police investigation on suspicion of kidnappings, administering illegal drugs, and the manufacture and release of the sarin nerve gas which killed 12 people and poisoned 5,500 others on the Tokyo subway in March.

One hundred and fifty Aum members have already been taken into custody; posters for missing suspects adorn public buildings all over Japan. But the warrant for Mr Aoyama's arrest makes no mention of any of these crimes.

Instead, like many of his fellow detainees, he was on a minor charge; for libelling a fertiliser company whom he accused of gassing Aum members at the cult's Mount Fuji headquarters. Other members have been arrested for trespass, riding a stolen bike and for driving through a red light.

The strange charges shed little light on police thinking, but illustrate how the sarin affair is turning into a struggle between two secretive, inscrutable Japanese organisations. One is Aum Shinri Kyo. The other is the National Police Agency.

Japan's police is a popular institution and, even in the present bizarre circumstances, public criticism of police officers is rare. On the face of it, it is the most successful force on earth. Japan suffers one robbery per 100,000 people, compared with 66 in Britain and 233 in America. Clear- up rates are equally staggering: 96 per cent of murder investigations and 76 per cent of robberies end in an arrest.

With their blue uniforms, bicycles, and discreetly holstered hand-guns, the police are a friendly and familiar presence even in the smallest communities. Six thousand koban, or police boxes, are manned day and night and can always be relied upon for directions, assistance in finding lost wallets, and the price of a train fare home. But by any standard the last six weeks have been a disaster. The biggest investigation since the Second World War has so far come up with much circumstantial evidence, but nothing directly identifying the sarin killers. To make matters worse, the NPA itself appears to have become a target.

The old-fashioned community policing in which Japan excels is quite unsuited to the hi-tech terrorists who launched the subway attack. A surprising, or suspicious, number of convictions are based on confession evidence, 90 per cent in certain courts. Suspects can be held for 23 days without charge, giving ample opportunity for police to squeeze out confessions, particularly in small communities where interrogator and prisoner may know one another.

An Amnesty International report on hanging in Japan suggests today that several death row prisoners have been convicted on the basis of forced confessions. But when the suspects are fanatics, or when the case depends on the minute sifting and analysis of difficult forensic evidence, the police are on less familiar ground. The biggest revelation of the past few weeks is how independent the Japanese police are. In part, this is a consequence of Japan's wartime past when the dreaded kempeitai military police acted as the enforcement arm of the nationalistic government. But it is beginning to look as if the NPA is not answerable to anyone.

"Without any firm evidence, they're creating the impression that Aum are the bad guys, and that the police are the white knights," said a lawyer on the Human Rights Committee of the Japan Federation of Bar Associations. "By rationing information, they create competition between journalists, and focus all their attention on the cult, rather than on the investigation itself."

The creation of a consensus, as a prelude to action, is a crucial part of Japanese decision-making in politics and business as much as in law- enforcement. If nothing else, the Japanese police have achieved one remarkable victory over Mr Aoyama and his organisation: in the absence of all conclusive evidence, the entire country believes that they are guilty.