TOKYO (Reuters) - Bowing to fierce public pressure, the Japanese doomsday cult accused of a 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo subways said Wednesday it would close its branches, stop recruiting and cease using its current name. But the Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect) did not offer an anticipated public apology for the incident which killed 12 and left thousands ill, saying only it was considering its future in light of recent comments by cult leader Shoko Asahara.
Cult representative Tatsuko Muraoka told a packed news conference late Wednesday the group had decided to suspend most of its activities as a "temporary measure" because of strong public opposition and a recent police crackdown which had already forced them to close branch offices earlier this month.
Many local residents also attended the news conference after media reports said earlier that the cult would probably apologize, reversing its previous stance which denied connection with the gassing incident.
Leader Asahara, on trial for total of 17 charges, told the court last week that plans for the subway gassing had been discussed by cult members, although he added he had been "asleep" during those discussions. But Muraoka said only that the cult wanted to consider its future in light of Asahara's latest remarks.
Public pressure and police crackdowns on the cult have intensified in recent months amid fears that Aum was staging a comeback. Residents living close to sect facilities have demanded they leave the neighborhood and the government is considering enacting bills to curb its activities.
The cult had also agreed to leave its current headquarters in downtown Tokyo in response to strong opposition from neighbors. Earlier Wednesday, two cult members were arrested for allegedly imprisoning a fellow cult member who wanted to leave the group. The cult denied the allegations, saying the cult member was mentally ill and that she had never been held against her will. Police arrested senior cult members Masahiro Guntani, 30, and Ryuji Shimotori, 37, for allegedly confining a 29-year-old woman against her will for about 10 days in March 1998.
Some experts on the cult were wary whether Wednesday's announcement meant the cult would really fade away.
"We must be very watchful from now on," Shoko Egawa, an expert on Aum issues, said on television.
"They may pretend to be sleeping and later awake."
The cult has already been asked to stop using its name by court-appointed lawyer, Saburo Abe, who is overseeing its bankruptcy proceedings, in order to avoid confusion over legal proceedings.
The cult was stripped of most of its assets in 1996 when it was liquidated by court order, but has managed to amass large funds through businesses as well as purchased property in many parts of the country.
In January 1997, Japan's Public Security Commission decided not to outlaw the cult under a harsh Anti-Subversive Law which has never been applied since its enactment after World War Two.
But growing public pressure has prompted the government to consider new legislation that would restrict the activities of groups which have committed mass murder and show no signs of abandoning their anti-social teachings.
Another bill likely to be submitted in an extra parliament session in November would apply specifically to Aum and allow use of its assets to compensate victims of crimes committed by Aum members.
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