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Japanese Justice Takes Spotlight In Aum Arrest

SHOKO ASAHARA, a self-proclaimed religious guru who tried to build a state that would survive the apocalypse he has repeatedly predicted, now faces a judgment day of his own.

The arrest of Mr. Asahara is certain to focus attention on Japan's justice system, which could execute the religious leader if he is found guilty of indiscriminate murder.

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Japanese police raided the main facility of Asahara's sect, Aum Shinri Kyo, on May 16. They detained the leader and 14 others on suspicion of murder and attempted murder in connection with the March 20 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 and injured thousands of people.

A parcel bomb exploded in the offices of Tokyo's newly elected governor about nine hours after the arrests, but it was unclear at press time whether there was any connection between the two events. Gov. Yukio Aoshima had recently indicated that he would try to seek a legal ruling disbanding Aum. Press reports here say police delayed their arrest of Asahara out of concern that his followers would react violently.

Asahara has vigorously denied the charges against him, reportedly telling investigators, ''You may not believe me, but do you think a poorly sighted man like myself can cause such an incident?'' According to family members and Aum followers, the sect leader has had eye problems since birth.

Fears partly soothed

The arrest brought a long-awaited sense of relief to Japan, which has witnessed a series of bizarre incidents involving noxious or lethal gases during the past two months. An unknown assailant almost killed the country's top police official on March 30.

Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama thanked investigators for their diligent work, but warned the nation to maintain its vigilance and said expanded police patrols would be continued. The bomb blast, which took place after Mr. Murayama spoke, suggested that the relief would be temporary.

Asahara and followers also charged with murder could be sentenced to death under Japanese law. Police and prosecutors now have 23 days before they must indict them, during which time the suspects may be detained and interrogated.

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Some 200 members have already been arrested on a variety of charges, many of them petty violations that have nothing to do with the gas attack. Police have already rearrested at least one of these Aum members on murder charges.

Aum Shinri Kyo, or Supreme Truth, quickly emerged as the leading suspect in the gas attack because a rival religious group had publicly accused Aum of responsibility for a July 1994 case involving the same nerve gas, sarin, in which seven people died.

Scrutiny of Aum quickly indicated that Asahara has had a preoccupation with nerve gases and other weapons of mass destruction. He has claimed that official conspiracies to repress his group have included spraying sect facilities with sarin.

In order to survive an apocalypse that Asahara says will take place this year or next, Aum members organized their group like a government, complete with bureaucracies and elements of a military. The group said it was seeking to become entirely self-sufficient and ran businesses to earn money. It also required full-time members, who may number more than 1,000, to donate their assets.

Repeated denials

Sect spokesmen have repeatedly denied any involvement in the sarin cases, but police raids of the group's facility have yielded tons of chemicals, including the substances necessary to produce sarin. The sect's spokesmen have said these materials were needed to make plastics and other industrial goods.

The investigation has dragged on for eight weeks without Asahara's arrest partly because Japanese police typically try to compile an irrefutable case before they file formal charges. In many cases, suspects simply confess. In order to convict on a murder charge, police must also produce material, rather than circumstantial, evidence.

A confession seems unlikely in this case, in light of the sect's vociferous denials of the charges against them. Japan has no jury system, so Asahara and his followers will be tried by judges if they choose to contest the case against them in court.

Tsugio Yada, formerly of the Tokyo public prosecutor's office, which will litigate the case against Aum, says trials usually begin a month or so after an indictment. In this case, because police are likely to investigate the sect's role in a number of other incidents, Mr. Yada says the trial may not begin until the end of this year.

Courts here may detain suspects without bail if they are thought likely to destroy evidence or flee. Indefinite detention appears likely for Asahara and probably others, since police say Aum members have admitted destroying the sect's stock of unused sarin and other evidence.

There is no telling how long the legal proceedings could last. If police have the proof they have described to the press, initial convictions may come quickly. But appeals could prolong the final outcome for years.

The question of whether the sect can get a fair hearing remains open. Mr. Yada, the former prosecutor, insists that ''Japanese judges will strictly check evidence and handle the case fairly,'' but the police and the media have engaged in an almost-overwhelming vilification of the group that began long before the arrest of Asahara.

Japanese newspapers and television have relied on police reports, without much apparent skepticism, to paint lurid portraits of the group's activities. It is hard to find a Japanese, even those who criticize the collusion between the press and police or worry about religious repression, who does not assert that Aum is guilty of orchestrating the gas attacks.

A revision of Japanese law

Officials have said they will move to have Aum legally disbanded if its members are indicted for murder. They have also said that it may be time to revise Japan's 30-year-old law on religious groups, which requires that organizations register with the government, but provides little or no authority for official monitoring.

That effort could cause controversy. Many Japanese remember the religious persecution that took place in Japan before World War II and are wary of its recurrence. ''The amendment of that law is very difficult politically,'' concedes Education Minister Kaoru Yosano, whose ministry includes the office that reviews applications for official certification.

Mr. Yosano has repeatedly encouraged a review of the law in an effort to prevent the emergence of groups like Aum.

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