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Raid on Sect Spurs Civil-Liberties Worries : Japan: Police action goes beyond kidnaping case that prompted warrant, critics say.

March 23, 1995|TERESA WATANABE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — The massive raid Wednesday on the Aum Supreme Truth religious group, deploying 2,500 police in riot gear and gas masks, provoked cries of foul play from sect members. But they are not the only ones charging that the police search and the seizure of toxic chemicals, cash and documents from group premises were illegal.

Civil rights lawyers here are also raising questions about the sweep, while some commentators have expressed uneasiness at the massive show of police force.

"As a spectator, I'm surprised at this huge raid by police," said Hiroshi Kume, newscaster for TV Asahi. "It seems a little extensive when the relationship is not quite clear between the sarin incident and Aum Supreme Truth."

Yoshiaki Ito, a lawyer for some Supreme Truth family members who are suing the group, asserted of the police action: "It's a little too extensive."

Takashi Takano, a civil rights attorney here, said police seized evidence that appeared to go far beyond the original kidnaping case that served as the basis for the search warrant. He argued that the kidnaping served only as a pretext for officers to enter the facilities and seize massive amounts of material related to the separate crime of Monday's sarin nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways.

"They wore gas masks and carried in canaries to detect poison. What does that have to do with a kidnaping?" he asked.

At a trial, evidence seized in a free-ranging search would be inadmissible under American laws--and should be in the Japanese system too, Takano said. As in the United States, to obtain a warrant police here must specify a crime, the place of the search and the materials desired.

But Takano said Japanese judges are "very, very reluctant to suppress tangible evidence by prosecutors because of the illegality (of a search) issue."

He cited a 1978 Japanese Supreme Court case in which justices ruled that a search and seizure by a police officer who stuck his hands in a person's pocket and found and opened a parcel containing amphetamines--all without a search warrant--were not unconstitutional. The court ruled "there might be cases when this material would be excluded, but this is not it because the officer did not act in bad faith," he said.

Despite criticism from Amnesty International and other human rights groups that Japanese police coerce confessions and engage in other illegal procedures, their appeals have not stirred much public interest.

"Americans have a jury system, so ordinary citizens may have much more knowledge about what goes on in a courtroom," he said. "But Japanese people simply don't know. They simply believe police always do justice."

The Japan Civil Liberties Union, which has long protested what it believes are widespread unreasonable searches and seizures by authorities, has relatively few members and nothing near the status of its American counterpart.

Still, some Americans wearied by violence may look enviously at the widespread power given police here, where the crime rate is still relatively low despite a small, recent increase in firearms.

But Takano said Japan's low crime rate is due more to social and cultural attitudes than to the two countries' different systems of law enforcement.

"I fear this (Supreme Truth) case will be used to widen police discretion and be used as a police success story," he said. "Unfortunately, Japan is still a police state, but the problem is that people don't know what is going on, and that makes bad things worse."

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