Aum Shinrikyo officer Niimi given death sentence for role in 26 murders

Senior Aum Shinrikyo figure Tomomitsu Niimi was sentenced Wednesday to death for his role in 26 murders and other crimes committed by the doomsday cult, including two deadly sarin attacks.

The Tokyo District Court found Niimi, 38, guilty of playing active roles in 11 crimes perpetrated by the cult, including seven cases of murder and two attempted murders between 1989 and 1995. The seven murder cases involve 26 deaths.

Other than Aum founder Shoko Asahara, Niimi is the only Aum member indicted in all seven murder cases, including the June 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, the March 1995 Tokyo subway gassing and the 1989 killing of an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and their infant son.

Presiding Judge Yujiro Nakatani said Niimi bears grave criminal responsibility as a senior member of the cult, whose “unprecedentedly malicious” crimes shocked society.

The ruling marked the eighth death penalty the court has handed down to an Aum defendant.

Niimi immediately filed an appeal.

The judge said Niimi “willfully participated in the crimes, and actively fulfilled his orders. As a result, 26 people were deprived of their lives.”

As Nakatani read the sentence, Niimi, who in his first trial session called himself “the direct disciple of Asahara,” showed almost no emotion.

He told the court throughout his trial that he was still loyal to the guru, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, and that his belief in Asahara’s teachings remained intact.

Niimi confessed to all the crimes for which he stood accused, other than the subway attack, but refused to apologize.

He said his “super-religious acts” transcended worldly values and that the crimes were his “self-sacrifice intended to salvage people.”

“The defendant has refused to show any regret and has repeatedly made self-righteous excuses,” the judge said. “The defendant has only insulted the victims and hurt their next of kin by his remarks (in court), and it is difficult to expect that he will someday repent.”

Niimi’s lawyers claimed that most of his crimes were part of Aum’s attempts to cause turbulence in Japanese society based on their religious beliefs, and that only Asahara — the accused mastermind — should be sentenced to hang.

The court said, however, that Aum’s crimes were mere attempts at self-protection rather than part of any action based on religious beliefs.

Shizue Takahashi, the widow of a subway worker killed in the 1995 sarin attack, told reporters after the ruling, “I have thought that (Niimi) deserves the death sentence. The accused behaved badly in court, and even seemed to be smiling.”

Niimi, known as Aum’s “home affairs minister” and one of Asahara’s closest aides, played direct roles in all seven murder plots, with the exception of the subway attack, the court ruled.

His involvement in Aum’s crimes began with the 1989 killing of cultist Shuji Taguchi, who tried to flee from the cult. Niimi strangled Taguchi, the court said.

He also strangled anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko, later that year, the court said.

Niimi played key roles in the cult’s sarin attack in Matsumoto in June 1994 that killed seven people and seriously injured three others. In the same year, he participated in three other cult-related murders and one attempted murder, as well as another murder attempt in January 1995, the court said.

In the subway attack, which killed 12 and injured around 5,000, Niimi played a conspiratorial role and served as a driver for other cultists who released the deadly nerve gas on the trains, the court said.

Like the other seven cultists sentenced to death by the court, Niimi filed an appeal with a higher court.

The trials of four other senior Aum members, including Asahara, are still under way.