Saddam Hussein and Shoko Asahara

The dictator's use of chemical weapons on Iraqis recalls the gas attack the leader of cult Aum Shinrikyo allegedly unleashed in Tokyo's subway

By Brian Bremner

Now that leaders of Iraq's thuggish Baath Party are being rounded up, the worst offenders can probably expect some sort of trial and, if convicted, serious prison time for using chemical weapons against the Iraqi people. Equally clear evidence is available that they carried out the torture, mutilation, and rape of supposed enemies of the state. Who were the state's enemies? Anyone who had so much as the scent of dissent against Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The world will learn more about the horrors of Iraq under Saddam in the months ahead. This doesn't mean the global debate about whether the U.S. and Britain were justified in using military force is resolved. It may never be. But what is known is that Saddam ordered chemical attacks on his own people and employed Stalinist control tactics against imagined and real enemies of his party. Maybe it should be called a terrorist cult.


  During the three-week campaign to dislodge Saddam, I kept thinking about Aum Shinrikyo and its once-beloved leader, Shoko Asahara. You remember Aum. It's a millennial cult that perverted elements of Hinduism and Buddhism to justify and carry out a lethal chemical-weapons attack on subway trains against ordinary Japanese on a gloriously sunny Monday morning back in March, 1995.

Perhaps that attack didn't seep into the global consciousness as much as it should have. But it was the real deal -- a terrorist assault using weapons of mass destruction in an urban center with the intent to kill as many civilians as possible. It was the embodiment of the post-September 11 nightmare scenario -- except it happened eight years ago, when few people had heard of Osama bin Laden.

How is Asahara related to Saddam? Both the Baath Party in Iraq and Aum in Japan propagated seemingly praiseworthy ideologies -- Pan-Arabism in the former and ascetic purity in the latter -- to justify something less praiseworthy: brutal control of followers. Both groups had little problem with murder and torture of enemies, imaginary or otherwise.


  They relentlessly pursued weapons programs for grandiose and ultimately unachievable political goals. Saddam aspired to overwhelming power to attain undisputed dominance in the Middle East and destroy Israel. Asahara wanted to bring about the destruction of the Japanese state and usher in some sort of Lotus civilization of small communes, albeit under his iron-fisted control.

I remember the day of the sarin attack in Tokyo well. At the time, BusinessWeek's office was in the heart of the Kasumigaseki neighborhood, ground zero of the attack (similar to the Capitol Hill area of Washington). Members of the Aum sect, allegedly under direct orders from Asahara, transported a liquid form of sarin gas in tightly contained packages, punctured them with umbrellas, and left them in subway cars and station to kill and kill some more.

I had to walk a mile or so to work, as the subway system shut down once authorities knew something heinous was under way. But near my office I remember seeing scores of stricken citizens lying on the ground and gasping. And during the saturation coverage of the war on Iraq, with its video replays of gassed Kurdish mothers and children, I thought of the 12 Japanese fatalities of the Aum attacks, their lives snuffed out on the way to work.


  This being Japan, the wheels of justice move exceedingly slowly. Asahara and key Aum members were rounded up just weeks after the attack. And an admittedly complex trial began in 1996. Asahara has pleaded innocent from the start. However, Japanese prosecutors have since nailed several key convictions of top cult members for carrying out the attack. They and others have testified that Asahara ordered the production of sarin back in 1993.

Among the charges he faces are the 1995 attack that killed a dozen people and injured 5,500, another less well-known sarin attack in central Japan that killed seven and sickened 600 a year before, and the kidnapping and murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife, and infant son. Sakamoto was representing the parents of cult members. Testimony has also been given of how Aum murdered its own members who tried to stray from the cult or question its radical teachings.

The prosecution team is expected to start making final closing arguments against the cult's founder on Apr. 24. But the trial is far from over. And a number of families who lost loved ones back in 1995 have dutifully attended court hearing after court hearing to see this process through, however, glacial.


  Asahara won't face a verdict from a panel of judges until 2004, although the consensus among legal experts is that he'll be convicted and sentenced to death. If that happens, his lawyers would probably try to delay his execution by hanging for many years to come. It's not inconceivable that well into this decade, his fate will still be uncertain.

Yet in the end, I'm convinced that both Asahara and Saddam will pay dearly -- perhaps Saddam has already -- for the grave wounds they inflicted on their followers and the societies in which they lived.

Bremner, Tokyo bureau chief for BusinessWeek, offers his views every week in Eye on Japan, only for BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Beth Belton

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