In a madhouse scene, Japanese police early today arrested Fumihiro Joyu, the suave spokesman and de facto leader of Aum Supreme Truth, who has consistently denied cult involvement in a deadly terrorist attack on Tokyo subways.
Hundreds of reporters and gawkers jostled outside Supreme Truth headquarters as a thick formation of police armed with riot shields hustled Joyu, wearing a helmet and blue jacket, into a waiting van. Scattered applause broke out after the arrest of the cult's single most visible member, who has mesmerized some with his baby-faced good looks and gilded tongue but repelled others who believe that he has a slippery character.
Joyu was arrested on charges of perjury in relation to a controversial 1990 land deal on the southern island of Kyushu. Although the charges are unrelated to the March subway attack, which killed 12 people and sickened 5,500, police were reportedly planning to interrogate him about that crime and a string of other killings and kidnapings linked to the cult.
Yoshinobu Aoyama, a cult attorney in custody on separate charges, and a third unidentified follower were also named in the arrest warrant.
But the arrest of Joyu, 32, marks the biggest development in the bizarre case since cult leader Shoku Asahara was apprehended in May while hiding in a secret room at the group's Mt. Fuji headquarters.
Asahara faces trial Oct. 26 on charges of masterminding the nerve gas attack on Tokyo rush-hour commuters and for five other crimes, including murder, kidnaping and illegally possessing chemicals.
Although the guru reportedly will plead not guilty, the NHK public television network and other media have reported that Asahara has confessed to the crimes. They quoted his lawyer, Shoji Yokoyama, as saying the guru did so to thwart the disbanding of the cult.
However, in a rare public statement on an ongoing case, a senior prosecutor denied the reports.
"No such thing as reported has happened," Tatsuo Kainaka told a news conference Thursday.
After the subway attacks thrust the cult into the public eye, Joyu became a media star and heartthrob, spawning fan clubs and splashy displays in gossip magazines about everything from his astrological profile to his sex life.
A graduate of the prestigious Waseda University specializing in artificial intelligence, debate and English, Joyu worked for the National Space Development Agency for one year before quitting to join the cult.
Since Asahara's arrest, Joyu has become the cult's de facto leader and has claimed to be reforming it by barring members from tampering with drugs and chemicals as well as from participating in other suspicious activities.
He has also claimed to have banned such hazardous cult activities as forcing followers to submerge themselves in hot water for extended periods--a practice believed responsible for some deaths.
Joyu was working in the cult's Moscow branch during much of the period when the nerve gas sarin is believed to have been manufactured and when it was used in the Tokyo assault.
But police believe that he has been at the center of operations since the cult was founded in 1989. In particular, they believe that Joyu may shed light on the kidnaping and murder of an anti-cult lawyer, his wife and 1-year-old son because he met with them three days before they disappeared.
In a related development Friday, cult representatives denied that they had made sarin. The denial came at a hearing on whether to revoke the group's status as a religious corporation--a status that provides tax breaks and other privileges.
The representatives claimed that chemicals authorities confiscated from Supreme Truth were for agricultural use; Tokyo's mayor and prosecutor's office dispute this. The administrative panel hearing the case is expected to issue a decision in a month.
Also, a group of Christian organizations gathered to protest the proposed use of the national Subversive Activities Prevention Law to officially disband Supreme Truth.
The law has been used against eight radical leftists in the past but never against a group, largely because of protests that such an act would lead to suppression of anti-government views.
The law may be applied to organizations that have engaged in terrorism and are deemed likely to do so again.
Late Friday, an unidentified man fired a shot at the cult's headquarters--momentarily setting off bedlam in the surging crowd of reporters, police and onlookers gathered outside--and was immediately taken into custody.
No one was injured, and there were conflicting reports on whether the gun was real or a toy.