Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Nerve gas used in Tokyo may have been tested on an Australian sheep station

ELLEN FANNING: An Australian sheep station may have been the testing ground for the nerve gas which killed 12 people when it was released into the Tokyo subway. Five and a half thousand people were injured in the gassing of the underground railway station in Japan in March. Tokyo police now claim they're close to arresting senior members of the Aum Supreme Truth sect and charging them with murder. Now, the sect owned 200,000 hectares of land in remote Western Australia and Australian authorities have revealed they may have used that property to test chemicals, including the agent Sarin which was used in the Tokyo attack. With the details, I'm joined by the Justice Minister, Duncan Kerr. And Mr Kerr, what's known about what went on at that sheep station?

DUNCAN KERR: What apparently happened is that in 1993, the group claimed to come into Australia to do gold fossicking. They bought the property, they brought in some chemicals. There were some illegalities there, and in fact they were detected at Customs and two were arrested and dealt with that way. But they went ahead with an apparently legitimate process. The large group left after a very short period of time, leaving only a couple of people, and after some time they sold the property. When the subway disaster occurred, the Federal police went to the property. They found some chemicals which they took away, and they were the sort of chemicals you could use for processing of minerals, and they also did a very extensive search of the property and there were some dead sheep in one corner of it. They took soil samples and some samples of the fleece, and went ahead with further testing of those samples in due course. Now, that's required very, very sophisticated sampling techniques, indeed bringing in some materials to enable that to happen, from overseas.

ELLEN FANNING: And what did they find?

DUNCAN KERR: What they found is that a substance called methylphosphonic acid which occurs when sarin breaks down. There were only very minute residue traces and very sophisticated laboratory techniques had to be used to identify them. The police are now back on the property and Japanese investigators, of course, have also been called in, and Japanese police are in Australia also.

ELLEN FANNING: And what are Australian and, indeed, Japanese authorities going to do with this evidence?

DUNCAN KERR: Well, obviously, that evidence is being passed back to Japan and, I mean, it's certainly not for me to make linkages that might spring to mind, but clearly, when sarin is a gas that is used in that horrific attack in the Tokyo subway which killed 12 persons, and when we find in Australia residues which appear to be connected with testing of that gas, then that obviously is a matter that the Japanese authorities are going to treat very seriously and we are, too. We also have a public health interest. Where the sheep were certainly has to be decontaminated. I'm advised that there's virtually no public health risk; the quantities were so minute. But we are making a very extensive check to make sure that is in fact the case and that there is no public health danger to the community.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, the Warren family of Western Australia who sold the property to the sect say they in fact met the sect leader who Japanese police are still looking for. Are you able to confirm that?

DUNCAN KERR: No, I don't want to go into any details about what happened and circumstances.

ELLEN FANNING: But this sect leader was in Australia at some point.

DUNCAN KERR: Yes, yes, he was. Oh, yes. He came out in 1993. He was only in Australia, I think, for a very brief period - about two weeks - and then returned with the bulk of the sect members, leaving a couple of people more or less on a caretaker capacity. They were there for about 11 months, and then they sold the property.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, he's on the run. Is there any possibility he could be here?

DUNCAN KERR:None that I'm aware of. Certainly no advice to me suggests that possibility.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, you say that the Japanese sect members entered this country on apparently legitimate business, yet some were arrested with deadly chemicals. That doesn't sound particularly legitimate, does it?

DUNCAN KERR: Well, they were arrested for not declaring chemicals which they were bringing in, but they said those chemicals were for metals processing and, in fact, they were of a type that were appropriate for that purpose, and they did import quite a substantial amount of chemicals which would have been apparently appropriate for the legitimate purpose for which they'd acquired the property.

ELLEN FANNING: So they didn't set off any alarm bells at that point?

DUNCAN KERR: They didn't set off .. well, they set off alarm bells in that they'd done wrong things in not declaring the chemicals, and they were dealt with by the courts for that. But the actual importation of the chemicals appeared to be for a legitimate purpose. Now, we've had a lot more work done about possible other purposes of even those chemicals, and it does appear that they could be used for a low-level production of another form of gas, not a deadly gas, but an irritant gas, something like a mustard gas. But the real concern is the finding of the traces of residues that appear to be from sarin. Sarin is a really very, very deadly gas, and I mean, I'm advised that, for example, the amount that would be required to kill the number of sheep that was found could have been contained, for example, in an item as small as a cigarette lighter. So ....

ELLEN FANNING: So how many sheep were killed?

DUNCAN KERR: I'm not sure of the exact number, but there was a small group of sheep found in a circle. It was close to 30, but I couldn't give you the exact number.

ELLEN FANNING: And in order to kill them, mustard gas and perhaps sarin gas was manufactured here in Australia?

DUNCAN KERR: There's no suggestion that we have any knowledge of the production of any other gases or any gases at all in Australia. The chemicals may well have just been used for metals processing as the people said. We have no evidence they were used, it's just a hypothetical possibility that, under some circumstances, they could have been put to that purpose. The sarin gas, however, the residues of the sarin gas, have been found in the soil samples under the sheep, and it does seem that clearly sarin was present on the property at some stage.

ELLEN FANNING: Well, in Japan, the Aum Supreme Truth sect has been under suspicion for serious offences since 1989. They bought this property in Australia several years later. Does that alarm you?

DUNCAN KERR: Well, I mean, obviously we are very concerned about this, but I think the Australian ....

ELLEN FANNING: But how were they able to buy it when they were under such suspicion in Japan?

DUNCAN KERR: Well, I think, well, they were able to purchase a property as a commercial transaction. They indicated at the time that they were interested in gold prospecting, legitimate purposes. Everything they did at that time was consistent. They do have extensive business practices in other countries as well. They are a large sect, and whilst there had been some allegations made against them, they were conducting apparently legitimate businesses, both in the United States, Japan, I understand, in the Soviet Union, or Russia. So, I mean, at that stage, there were concerns. Obviously, Customs did its job. When they were searched when they entered Australia, when chemicals were found that had not been declared, they were proceeded against in the courts and convictions obtained. Subsequently, because of their conduct, visas were refused, so the Australian system has been working carefully, but this is the first time we have had confirmation that the gas, sarin, was on the property and it's only been obtained after the most complicated and complex chemical analysis involving technologies from overseas.

ELLEN FANNING: Duncan Kerr, thank you. The Justice Minister, Duncan Kerr.