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Desperate people — and groups — can be expected to take desperate steps. The carefully orchestrated public relations campaign in which the Aum Shinrikyo cult is now engaged, including changing the cult name to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, for a “fresh start,” seems like little more than a ploy to keep the police and public safety authorities at bay. The admission by senior cult members that founder Shoko Asahara (real name Chizuo Matsumoto) may have been involved “to a certain extent” in at least 17 major crimes for which he is now on trial, combined with an apology to the victims and their families, is being treated in all quarters with the suspicion it rightly deserves.

How can it be otherwise? The “drastic reforms” supposedly being undertaken by the cult charged with, among other crimes, the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subways that killed 12 people and injured another 5,500, were detailed in a letter sent to the media over the name of senior member and former official spokesman Fumihiro Joyu. At one time he was responsible for facing television cameras and making vociferous denials that Aum Shinrikyo had anything whatever to do with such crimes. Joyu does not seem to have been idle in the less than one month since he was released from prison after serving a three-year sentence for perjury.

In his letter he claimed he wanted to “officially amend” his former “incorrect statements.” The public has waited a long time for that ostensible change of heart to occur and is understandably doubtful that it is genuine, couched as it was in qualifications. To be sure, the groundwork for the “reforms” was laid a month and a half ago when acting cult leader Ms. Tatsuko Muraoka issued her own statement expressing “regret” for the crimes in which she acknowledged that Aum had been involved. That also failed dismally to sway public opinion in the cult’s favor.

All these moves by the renamed Aum are occurring just as a new law aimed at controlling the cult (specifically, any group whose members have committed “indiscriminate mass murder”) was being adopted by the Diet. Despite the statement by Joyu in a newspaper interview that he no longer considers founder Asahara a god and now feels he cannot be relied on, he consistently referred to him as a “holy guru” and claimed to still respect him as a meditator. That is also the official position of the cult as it announces plans to abandon any previous doctrine — such as the one justifying murder — that might be construed as dangerous because of its link with past crimes.

When the Public Security Examination Commission met on Thursday to consider a request to keep the cult under supervision for the maximum period of three years under the terms of the new law, victims of Aum-instigated crimes and their families were the most directly interested observers. The request for supervision was made by the Public Security Investigation Agency, which is responsible for enforcing the new law. Although cult members were allowed to present counterarguments in an afternoon session, agency officials offered compelling reasons from the morning session for regarding the group as a continuing threat. The commission’s decision is eagerly awaited by all those who believe that Aum, or Aleph, still seeks to spread Asahara’s doctrines.

The cult’s senior members offer seemingly persuasive reasons for reorganization as opposed to dissolution, notably that disbanding would free them of the responsibility to compensate victims. The group has agreed to turn over its facilities in seven locations to its bankruptcy administrators, who will seek to sell them for funds to be used for such compensation. That is a start, but other assets, including the proceeds from the cult’s lucrative personal-computer sales business, need to be made available for the same purpose. Some of the victims of Aum’s sarin attacks in Tokyo and Matsumoto still suffer serious mental and physical symptoms.

The widespread skepticism that greeted the cult’s announcement of far-reaching changes was hardly unexpected, nor is it in any way unfair. The constitutional freedoms of all citizens must be protected, but those who have engaged in heinous crimes as a matter of religious dogma have no right to believe they should be treated exactly like those who abide by the law. Regardless of what the Public Security Examination Commission decides about ongoing supervision of its activities, the “Former” Aum Shinrikyo, its leaders and its rank-and-file members can expect permanent public scrutiny until they offer genuine apologies that include official denials of the teachings that brought it to its present sorry situation.

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