Citizens who are justifiably wary of the lingering threat to public safety posed by the Aum Shinrikyo cult welcome the bill seeking to control its activities now under consideration in the Diet. It is expected to be enacted into law before the end of the year. The numerous criminal activities with which the cult leaders stand charged and for which some have already been found guilty, in particular the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 12 people and injured another 5,500, have left Aum with few defenders outside of its own dedicated membership. The bill submitted to the Diet by the government following automatic Cabinet approval therefore is seen by many as a necessary, if somewhat risky, move.

Although the proposed legislation is already being referred to as the “Aum control law,” commentators have noted that it avoids specifically naming the cult. Instead, it seeks to supervise and regulate any group whose members have committed “indiscriminate mass murder” or whose leaders have been behind such killings and who still exert a strong influence over group members. At this time, only Aum Shinrikyo would seem to qualify, and few would dispute the need for closer surveillance of its apparent nationwide resurgence. As some constitutional scholars have already observed, however, there is a potential for abuse of citizens’ basic human rights if the provisions of the law are not rigorously followed.

Soon after the sarin gas attack gave terrifying notice of the steps that Aum founder Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, appeared ready to take to make his bizarre predictions of Armageddon come true, questions were raised about the police’s failure to prevent the tragedy. There were abundant indications that the cult was engaged in activities belying its claim to be devoted only to religious study and practice. Was it an inability to recognize the obvious danger signs, or were the existing laws insufficient to allow timely action? Did the religious element prompt police timidity?

The debate over whether the government should have applied the Antisubversive Activities Law to authorize disbandment of Aum continues even as the new law nears approval. Asahara is no longer the official cult leader, although he reportedly still wields considerable influence over the six senior members apparently now in charge. Fumihiro Joyu, who is soon to end a three-year prison term and who once served as the cult’s highly visible — and highly able — public spokesman, is widely expected to assume the top role after his release. It was Joyu who personally campaigned against the use of the antisubversive law against a “religious group.”

The release of sarin on the Tokyo subways during the morning rush hour would seem to qualify as a subversive rather than a religious activity. It has never been made clear why, if the law regulating such activities required revising to be applied to Aum, that revision was not undertaken. Were the reasons legal, or political? Justice Minister Hideo Usui says the new law is intended to alleviate the anxiety of local municipalities where Aum has shown new signs of being active. Mr. Usui insists the law will not violate constitutionally guaranteed civil rights. Perhaps he is right, although targeting a specific yet unnamed group obviously raises some complex issues of law.

Aum Shinrikyo’s current leadership recently called a news conference to announce plans for the cult to “hibernate” for a time and refrain from soliciting new members or engaging in other public activities. However, that step appears likely to have been taken in reaction to the vocal campaigns by local authorities in several parts of the country seeking to expel Aum facilities from their towns or villages, rather than to any profound change of heart by the cult. There is still plenty of reason for the public, as well as the police, to remain vigilant. As Mr. Usui rightly notes, Aum as a group has yet to apologize or display any remorse whatever for the serious crimes with which its members have been charged.

Aum Shinrikyo is a national problem, not a local one. The need for regulating the cult’s questionable activities has long been apparent and the new law should succeed in doing this if it is carefully implemented with full consideration for the safeguards the government says it will contain. The bill as submitted provides that a group implicated in a major crime can be placed under the surveillance of the Public Security Investigation Agency for up to three years. It also includes a provision placing a limit of 30 days on its screening procedures to ensure prompt action. The law will not succeed, however, if it prompts the cult, under a clever new leader, simply to go underground and effectively “disappear.”

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