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Court Shuts Down Japanese Cult Branches in Russia

April 18, 1995

MOSCOW (AP) _ As parents wept with joy, a judge closed down the Russian branches of a Japanese sect Tuesday for corrupting its young devotees and ordered it to pay $4 million in damages.

Aum Shinri Kyo, suspected of carrying out the March 20 nerve gas attack in Tokyo subways that killed 12 people, has 30,000 adherents in Russia.

Moscow city Judge Irina Vorobyova closed down all the sect’s branches and ordered the Mayak radio station and the 2X2 television station to stop broadcasting its programs, one of the major ways the group reaches its followers.

The group has six branches in Moscow as well as branches in seven other Russian cities.

The judge also ordered the sect’s Russian representatives to pay $4 million in punitive damages to a group of parents who sued it in June 1994.

``Oh, I can finally breathe again,″ a tearful Svetlana Koroleva said after the verdict. ``But all this sadness will not go away until our children are back in our arms.″

Koroleva said she had lost all contact with her son Sergei since he moved in with the sect last fall.

Tuesday’s ruling, the first against a religious group in post-Soviet Russia, ended an emotionally charged trial that highlights the growing appeal of alternative religion in today’s Russia.

Millions of Russians have sought spiritual solace amid post-Soviet economic decline and social disarray. Many have turned to the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, but others have turned to sects and self-styled gurus.

``I believe in freedom of religion,″ prosecutor Svetlana Tsekarenko said in her closing statement Tuesday. ``But what these groups are doing is cruel to children, and to their parents. It must stop.″

Gennady Belushkin, an Aum Shinri Kyo monk, said he would ignore the ruling. ``They cannot forbid us to believe,″ he said. ``I will continue to help people from my apartment, the people who need healing.″

A prominent Orthodox cleric lashed out Tuesday at Aum Shinri Kyo and other sects. ``They are inflicting damage on the souls of Russians,″ Archbishop Alexander of Kostroma told the ITAR-Tass news agency.

Some human rights groups have expressed concern that the case against Aum Shinri Kyo could lead to a crackdown on religious freedom in Russia.

``Our country is comfortable with totalitarian leadership,″ said Irina Lenikova of the Moscow Center for Human Rights. ``I think this will prompt a series of such trials against religious groups.″

In Japan, police say they now have enough evidence to prove the group made the nerve gas used in the Tokyo subway attack. Last week, riot police removed 53 children from a cult commune in Japan and placed them in protective custody, saying they were being mistreated.

The sect’s leader, Shoko Asahara, has been in hiding since the subway attack. The group denies involvement in the nerve gas attack.

The cult, which combines elements of Hinduism and Buddhism, teaches that only cult members will survive an apocalyptical battle between Christians and Buddhists that will ignite a third world war in 1997.

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