Tokyo cult finds an unlikely supporter.
The Washington Post, May, 1995.
By T.R. Reid.
Thanks to Rick Ross for these articles, taken from his critical page.
TOKYO - As new evidence seems to implicate the secretive Aum Shinrikyo in case of terrorism, murder and kidnapping the sect's leaders have found an unlikely supporter: an officer of the American Bar Association.
Barry Fisher, a lawyer in Los Angeles who said he is chairman of the bar association's subcommittee on religious freedom, traveled to Tokyo with three other Americans [including J. Gordon Melton] - Aum paid the bill - to warn that the Japanese police were threatening the group's religious freedom.
The Americans said Monday that they spent three days in Japan talking to cult officials and others, but were not permitted to visit the sect's chemical factories or its headquarters campus.
The American held a pair of news conferences to suggest that the sect was innocent of criminal charges and was a victim of excessive police pressure.
The sect has emerged as the chief suspect in the gas attack on the Tokyo subways on March 20, that left 12 dead. The police are also said to be investigating whether the sect is linked to a 1994 poison gas case that killed seven, and to the shooting of the national police chief who was supervising the investigation of the cult.
One of the Americans, James Lewis, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases. He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum.
According to press reports here, Mr. Fisher of the Bar Association subcommittee called on the Japanese police to resist the temptation "to crush a religion and deny freedom." The fear of terrorism in Japan "is being used by some as an excuse to strengthen police powers."
Mr. Lewis said it was "outrageous" that some children had been removed by the police from an Aum dormitory where they were housed apart from their parents. He also said he was not familiar with details of how the children were treated at the cult.
The children of Aum members have said they were permitted two meals a day and four hours of sleep a night. They did not go to school, were not permitted to contact friends or relatives who were not cult members and were not permitted to play outside because the cult's leader said his enemies were attacking the group with poison gas.
The Americans said the sect had invited them to visit after they expressed concern to Aum's New York branch about religious freedom in Japan. The said their airfare, hotel bills and "basis expenses" were paid by the cult.
In the eight weeks since the Tokyo attack, the police have seized thousands of documents and literally tons of physical evidence from sect buildings. They have arrested about 150 cult members, most on minor charges. But they have not yet arrested or charged a single person with the subway crime.
That seems to reflect the standard police procedure here of bringing criminal charges only after they have enough evidence to make a conviction certain.
U.S. activists visit Tokyo. They're concerned about treatment of sect suspected in subway attack
The Los Angeles Times, May 6, 1995
By Teresa Watanabe
TOKYO - Four California activists are investigating charges of religious persecution against Aum Supreme Truth, the sect suspected in a poison gas attack against subway riders here in March.
In an interview Friday, Los Angeles lawyer Barry Fisher said he and the others decided to wait after hearing that authorities had conducted mass arrests of Supreme Truth members, that sect children had been removed from their families and that officials were making allegations of mind control against the group.
These actions, and other steps taken by the government against Supreme Truth, may suggest persecution of the group, he said, adding that, even if some sect members were involved in illegal acts, it does not justify attempts to scapegoat all followers or quash the entire religion.
"How a country reacts to religious persecution is a test of basic freedoms, and Japan doesn't have a long history of fundamental freedoms, " said Fisher, chairman of the American Bar Association's subcommittee on religious freedom.
He arrived in Japan on Wednesday to investigate whether Supreme Truth, which adheres to [sic] Buddhist and yogic beliefs and has branches in Russia, the United States, Germany and Sri Lanka is a legitimate religion.
He was accompanied by two Santa Barbarans - J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, and James R. Lewis, director of the Association of World Academics for Religious Education - and Thomas Banigan of Anver Bioscience Design Inc. in Sierra Madre.
Melton said he contacted Supreme Truth's New York office after news reports raised questions about possible persecution.
Supreme Truth agreed to pay the group's plane fare and expenses -but no other fees - and has made its officials, including spokesman Fumihiro Joyu, available for interviews.
The group plans to hold a news conference in Tokyo on Sunday to discuss its conclusions.
After a mysterious poison attack killed 12 people and afflicted more than 5,000 Tokyo subway riders March 20, police launched and intensive investigation against Supreme Truth, which is led by blind and bearded guru Shoko Asahara.
In extensive raids, police have seized more than 1,000 drums of toxic chemicals and petroleum, scoured the group's laboratory facilities and examined cartons of documents - seizing evidence which they say proves that the group made sarin, a Nazi nerve gas suspected in the attack, according to Japanese press reports.
More than 150 people have been arrested on unrelated charges, such as trespassing and possessing expired care registrations. Authorities have removed numerous sect children from their families, saying their welfare was endangered.
Japanese officials have announced that they will seek to remove Supreme Truth's status as a religious entity, which has given them special protections and tax benefits.
Fisher said scandals taint religious groups worldwide, "but that didn't bring about a government calling for an end to a religion, and that is precisely what is being done here. There seems to be no one rallying to protect innocent individuals."
Underscoring the tense climate here, two of the Californians said they were questioned by immigration authorities at Narita International Airport for more than an hour after arriving Wednesday. Although the authorities were polite, the Californians said they found it unnerving. They said they have been followed by unidentified men ever since.
Officials at their hotel, they said, have told them they may not bring guests to their room and have posted three men on their floor; at least three other unidentified men, possibly security police, have been posted in the hotel lobby. It was unclear whether these guards were protecting or spying on the group. Hotel officials declined to comment on the security.