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Cult Leader Gets Death Sentence in 1995 Tokyo Subway Gas Attack

Special to The Times

Aum Supreme Truth guru Shoko Asahara was sentenced to death by hanging Friday, almost nine years after his cult released nerve gas in Tokyo’s subway, killing 12 people and sickening thousands.

The Tokyo District Court’s presiding judge, Shoji Ogawa, in handing down the sentence, called Asahara’s crimes “vicious and merciless.”

“His crimes did not stop at the murder of specific individuals but expanded into indiscriminate acts of terrorism,” Ogawa said. “These actions plunged Japan and the world into deep fear.”

Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was on trial for crimes that included the 1989 deaths of a young lawyer and his family and the March 20, 1995, subway attack, in which his followers released sarin on trains. Cult members also killed seven people in 1994 in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto, when they gassed an apartment building housing judges who were hearing a suit against them.

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Aum, which at its peak boasted about 10,000 members, espoused a blend of Buddhism, meditation and yoga. Followers were told that Asahara, who is nearly blind, could levitate and that they could achieve enlightenment by following his teachings. As its views turned apocalyptic, the cult saw itself as being at war with the state.

Survivors and relatives of the victims expressed relief at the verdict but were disappointed that the trial took so long and did not provide an explanation of Asahara’s reason for ordering the attacks.

Shizue Takahashi, whose husband, a subway employee, was killed when he attempted to remove a package of sarin from a train, said: “I visited my husband’s grave this morning and attended the trial with the soul of my husband. I am glad that Asahara received the death penalty, which I had long sought.”

She also said that “the defense lawyers had a responsibility not just to defend Asahara but also to bring out the truth of what happened. Instead, they just spent long years dragging out the case. There is a need to review the criminal justice system to get more prompt sentencing.”

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Japanese legal experts said the trial was so long because prosecutors initially had brought too wide a range of charges against Asahara.

Toshikuni Murai, a professor of criminal law at Ryukoku University, told the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun: “In a case that is important to society and where there were calls for particular speed, it is meaningless to have the ruling at a time when people have almost forgotten the incident.”

A dozen senior Aum figures now have been sentenced to death. The judge Friday rejected the defense argument that Asahara was a distant leader unaware of the crimes committed in his name by his acolytes.

In 257 court appearances, Asahara, 48, spoke on only a few occasions, denying his guilt, mumbling and acting erratically. He showed no reaction as he was sentenced to death.

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The defense immediately appealed the verdict. Experts believe that the appellate process could take 10 more years.

The Aum cult, which has renamed itself Aleph in what critics dismiss as a purely cosmetic exercise, has about 1,600 members in Japan. Its activities are closely monitored by authorities.

Shoko Egawa, a journalist who has reported on the cult since 1989 and who survived an Aum assassination attempt, argues that the cult remains a threat.

“In 1995 the cult was physically very dangerous in that it had chemical weapons, chemists, money and secret laboratories. It was also psychologically dangerous because members blindly followed the guru,” Egawa said.

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“Now the cult is not physically dangerous, but psychologically, followers have not improved at all,” she said. “The cult deliberately ignores the mass of evidence linking Asahara to the crimes. The cult says his teachings are good and refuses to connect his teachings with his crimes.”

Critics believe that police were grossly incompetent in initially failing to recognize the scope of the threat posed by Aum even as the cult was accused of kidnappings and set about recruiting chemists to manufacture sarin, VX and phosgene. The cult persuaded followers to hand over all their possessions in pursuit of nirvana as it built a formidable, illegal arsenal of conventional weapons.

Although the now-intense monitoring of Aum ensures that the cult is unable to pose such a threat to society again, public safety experts believe that Japan remains vulnerable.

Takehiko Yamamura, director of Tokyo’s Disaster Prevention System Institute, said, “From long ago, the basic thinking in Japan was that, ‘Water, air and safety come free.’ It is a myth of security that is not based on evidence. Today we have rising crime and serious incidents, but our awareness remains low.”

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The 1995 gas attack heightened doubts raised about Japan’s emergency preparedness after the Kobe earthquake that same year killed more than 6,400 people.

Yamamura argues that Japan remains unprepared for disasters, citing the launch of a crude projectile onto the grounds of the Defense Agency this month, in what apparently was a protest by far-left Japanese extremists.

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Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.

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