Aum's Secret Patrons

Even after the arrests of Aum Shinri Kyo leaders in Moscow, the sect continued to enjoy curious favor with the Russian authorities.

The recent decision of Russian Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov to reopen the investigation into the outlawed Japanese Aum Shinri Kyo sect conveniently coincided with Boris Yeltsin's official visit to Japan.

It is hard to say what the renewal of the case will achieve, given that most of the evidence has been destroyed and the suspects have fled the country over the last three years. For the many victims of the sect's unbridled activities in Russia, this newfound enthusiasm certainly comes too late.

The Aum Shinri Kyo sect arrived in Russia in 1992 after the collapse of the communist regime. This was a time when many Russians longed to have an infallible leader and teacher, someone to follow without having to overburden their minds with heavy thinking and doubts. The Aum Shinri Kyo sect assumed these functions. Russians flocked to it en masse, and the number of Aum Shinri Kyo followers in the country quickly reached 30,000. People failed to pick up on the unsavory goings-on in the sect, the compulsory hours of gruelling prayer and physical exercise demanded of pupils, the restrictions in the amount of food and sleep allowed, the administration of mysterious medicines, and even beatings with sticks.

Members of the sect were obliged to sever contacts with their families and hand over all their property -- including that most treasured asset, the Moscow apartment.

People surrendered all of this voluntarily, falling victim to mental manipulation while under the influence of narcotics. They would suddenly develop an adoration for the sect's leader, Shoko Asahara, gazing for hours at his portrait. Many later underwent psychiatric treatment, but not all recovered.

From the outset, the Aum Shinri Kyo enjoyed the support of some of Russia's senior figures. Asahara was officially received by then Vice President Alexander Rutskoi and the speaker of the Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov. This would never have happened had the Russian intelligence agents working in Tokyo in the guise of journalists and diplomats not assured them that Asahara could be of use to Russia and that a meeting with him was expedient. At that time in Japan, the dangerous, terroristic nature of the Aum Shinri Kyo sect's activities was widely acknowledged. Russian agents could have visited the main base of the Aum Shinri Kyo at the foot of Mount Fuji and seen the nightmarish workings of the sect for themselves. But the intelligence service chose not to do that, even though it has a special unit with the sole task of identifying potential threats to Russia. Was this evidence of a low level of competence, or an understanding with the sect's leaders?

In Moscow, the Japanese sect found itself a patron in Security Council Secretary Oleg Lobov, whose significant influence over both the army and the Federal Security Service enabled the sect leaders to freely visit army bases, secret factories and institutes, and even the Nuclear Power Ministry.

In March 1995, the sect was banned by a Moscow court following the Aum Shinri Kyo's gas attack in the Tokyo metro. At the demand of the parents of the victims of the sect, criminal proceedings were started against its leaders in the capital.

When the sect's main leader in Moscow learned of the court decision, he immediately fled to Tokyo, where he was subsequently arrested. His deputy, Toshiyasu Ouchi, took his place, but he too was arrested in Moscow soon afterward.

The Aum Shinri Kyo sect nevertheless continued to enjoy curious favor with Russian authorities. After it was outlawed, its key members immediately returned to their spacious headquarters on Zvyozdny Bulvar -- one of six such centers they maintained in Moscow -- where plainclothes officials awaited them. These officials inexplicably stood aside while sect members removed computers holding the organization's database, got rid of boxes of documents and physically destroyed other evidence. Only later were the premises sealed off.

From the start, the investigation was sluggish. The head of the investigation team was changed twice, and each time, the investigation began anew. There were several charges against Ouchi, including founding a religious organization that harmed the health of citizens, and the acquisition of property by deception. But Ouchi remained sure of himself, leasing several large apartments in Moscow, where he continued to instruct members, regardless of the official ban. During the years of the investigation, the cult went on recruiting new members and even running several commercial companies in Moscow.

While other junior members of the sect sat behind bars for months, Ouchi spent only 10 days in jail before making a deal with the investigators: He would hand over his associates, even summoning some back to Moscow from Japan, and in exchange, he would remain free.

Recently, the Russian authorities absolved Ouchi of the charges against him. In April, the investigation was closed "in connection with changed circumstances," under Article 6 of the criminal-procedural code, which leading attorneys say is frequently used in Russia to cover up intrigue.

And Ouchi vanished. Not one Russian or Japanese journalist could find out where he went; officials said they didn't know, however improbable that seems. One gets the impression that he was allowed, for some service rendered to Russia, to leave the country just a few days before Japan officially announced that he was wanted in connection with a number of murders at home. Ouchi was finally handed over to Cypriot police after taking refuge on the island. In the light of these details, Skuratov's decision to reopen the case seems little more than a crude bid to win favor with the public.

Konstantin Preobrazhensky is a former officer of the KGB. He acted as a legal interpreter for Japanese sect members during their detention in Russia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.