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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Japan on alert after executions of cult members

Shoko Asahara and six members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult he founded were hanged on Friday

Clockwise from top left: Aum Shinrikyo cult leader Shoko Asahara; Tomomasa Nakagawa, Seiichi Endo, Masami Tsuchiya, Kiyohide Hayakawa, Tomomitsu Nimi and Yoshihiro Inoue. Kyodo News via AP
Clockwise from top left: Aum Shinrikyo cult leader Shoko Asahara; Tomomasa Nakagawa, Seiichi Endo, Masami Tsuchiya, Kiyohide Hayakawa, Tomomitsu Nimi and Yoshihiro Inoue. Kyodo News via AP

Japan was on alert on Saturday amid fears that the executions of the former leader and members of a doomsday cult behind the deadly Tokyo subway sarin gas attack in 1995 could spark acts of retaliation by supporters or newly formed groups.

Japan hanged Shoko Asahara on Friday and six other members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, which killed 13 people in an attack that shattered the country's myth of public safety.

Police and the Public Security Intelligence Agency were collecting intelligence and monitoring followers of Asahara, Kyodo news agency said, citing warnings by a senior police official that Aum followers remained active.

The security agency said it searched 16 facilities belonging to three groups across Japan on Friday, including those of the cult's formal successor and a splinter organisation launched by a former Aum spokesman.

Asahara, 63, a pudgy, partially blind yoga instructor, was sentenced to hang in 2004 on 13 charges, including the subway gas attacks and other crimes that killed at least a dozen people.

He pleaded not guilty and never testified, but muttered and made incoherent remarks in court during the eight years of his trial. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006.

In all, 13 cult members were sentenced to death during more than 20 years of trials, which came to an end in January.

Friday's executions led domestic media to examine how Aum was able to recruit its followers — many of whom were young and highly educated — and whether its offshoots or other newly formed groups could do the same.

The Nikkei business daily said in an editorial that the influence of Aum remained and that cults were still looking to recruit young people.

"From street corners, universities, and the world of the internet, cult-like groups that target young people have not disappeared," it said.

"The conditions for young people to fall into the darkness of Aum — isolation, dissatisfaction with the state, and dissemination of extreme ideas — are actually becoming stronger."

Others questioned the ability of cults or similar groups to recruit followers on the scale achieved by Aum, let alone reach the level of organisation and equipment needed to stage major attacks.

Aum, which mixed Buddhist and Hindu meditation with apocalyptic teachings, had at least 10,000 members in Japan and overseas at its peak, including graduates of some of the country's top universities.

Hirohito Suzuki, a professor of sociology at the Graduate School of Project Design in Tokyo, said a combination of greater surveillance of Aum's offshoots and greater societal awareness meant it was now difficult for groups to obtain weapons or carry out military-style training.

Individuals who identify with the cult or Asahara were more likely to launch attacks, he said.

"There is a possibility that people who have sympathies with Asahara could launch acts of violence in towns, or near stations," Mr Suzuki said. "It's very difficult for authorities to monitor those lone-wolf individuals."