The doomsday cult responsible for releasing nerve gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands others, dropped its guru, changed its name and apologized to its victims Tuesday.
In a statement sent to newspapers and posted on the Internet, the Aum Supreme Truth cult admitted for the first time that its founder was involved in the gas attack. The bearded and nearly blind Shoko Asahara, who embodied the cult and was the object of fervent adulation by its members, is on trial on 17 charges, including murder.
"Although we cannot say for sure since the trial is still going on, we have come to a consensus that Asahara was likely involved in the series of crimes he is charged with," the statement said.
The cult said that while Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is a genius in yoga and Buddhist meditation methods, from now on, "he will be regarded as a spiritual presence so he will not be giving directions to followers."
The group, which now calls itself Aleph, said its members would be asked to reapply and must pledge to obey the law. The members "will make it clear that, far from committing mass murder, they will not murder or injure anyone," the statement said.
The cult has continued its religious and business activities since the subway killings, although Asahara and dozens of others are on trial for the attack. The number two cult leader, Fumihiro Joyu, who signed the statement, was released from prison at the end of December, sparking concern that he would revitalize the group. As many as 2,000 people are believed to be members, and there are regular scuffles and protests by angry residents around buildings in Tokyo or nearby prefectures known to be owned or rented by the cult.
In response to fears that the cult was making a comeback, parliament passed a tough new law in December that would allow police to enter facilities and require the group to provide information about its members and activities every three months. A hearing is scheduled for Thursday on whether police can begin new surveillance under the law.
The cult's announcement is "merely a move aimed at circumventing restrictions based on the law," said Mikio Aoki, the chief cabinet secretary.
Tatsuko Muraoka, who has been the acting representative of the cult, will take over the top post, but there will be no guru, according to the statement. The new "fundamental subject of adoration for the new group will be the Great God Shiva and various Buddhas," it said.
The cult said its new name was taken from the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet, to indicate a fresh start.
The reaction to the cult's announcement was largely skeptical. "These measures are to avoid criticism from the public, but neither the victims nor the public can believe them. It's a total farce," said Yoshifu Arita, an author and expert on the cult. "It's just like Aum is changing its clothes and nothing more."
A lawyer for victims of the gas attack, Taro Takimoto, told reporters that the announcement was a step forward, "but coming from a sect that has lied and lied in the past, it is hard for us to believe what they said."
Michiko Hishinuma, whose husband was killed in the Tokyo subway attack, was quoted in Japanese newspapers as saying that "if they are sincere about their apologies, they should denounce all dogmas laid down by Asahara. Adopting a new name means nothing."
The cult apologized to victims in its statement and said it intended to pay compensation. But the amount of cult assets are in dispute. Its tangled assets are being slowly unwound by a court-appointed bankruptcy administrator. The new law would make it easier for officials to seize cult assets and pay 1,000 people demanding compensation for the subway gassing and another gas attack in Nagano Prefecture that killed seven people.
The national newspaper Yomiuri Shimbun said earlier this month that two computer companies linked to the cult reportedly hid about $49 million in profits over the past five years.
Kenji Utsunomiya, another lawyer representing victims, said that since Aum did not use banks, it was difficult to know how much money it had. He said some reports estimated the hidden cash at nearly $7 million.
Special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto contributed to this report.
CAPTION: Indicted guru Shoko Asahara, left, is dropped as the cult's leader.