The Tokyo High Court upheld the death penalty Wednesday for Tomomitsu Niimi, Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara’s right-hand man.
Niimi, 42, was convicted of participating in the murders of 26 people, including the seven victims of the sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, on June 27, 1994, and the 12 people killed in the Tokyo subway gassing on March 20, 1995.
“Although Niimi may have committed his crimes to put his religious beliefs into practice, they were still crimes there is nothing to mitigate his responsibility,” presiding Judge Kunio Harada said in refusing leniency.
The court dismissed the defense argument that the once gentle and intelligent college student was only obeying Asahara, who had duped him into thinking the crimes were based on some divine will.
Niimi testified that he often doubted the truth of Asahara’s teachings, but would repeatedly tell himself he must fight what he saw as his own willfulness and give himself over to his guru’s wishes.
“The defendant was fully aware that Asahara’s teachings to ‘mercy-kill’ (the unenlightened) differed greatly from society’s values,” Harada said. “He acted out of his own free will.”
Niimi was convicted for his involvement in seven murder cases, two cases of attempted murder, and four other charges involving the confinement of cultists and the harboring of Aum fugitives. The seven murders include the 1989 killing of a Yokohama lawyer who was helping to get people out of the cult, the attorney’s wife and their infant son, as well as the lynching of Aum members who quit or tried to leave the cult.
Niimi’s eyes began to tear up when the judge read the defendant’s apology: “I am pained to have caused so much grief to so many people and their families . . . but please understand that some may hold other values.” But he then quickly assumed the lotus position, closed his eyes and began breathing deeply, as if in meditation.
His lawyer, Yutaka Ozaki, said he would speak with his client about whether to appeal to the Supreme Court.
“Deep down, he is horrified at what he did,” reckoned Hiroyuki Nagaoka, whom Niimi tried to kill in 1995 after he got his son out of the cult. “But he can’t admit that, not even to himself. It would mean a denial of all that he’s done for Aum.”
Niimi and Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, had cultists pour VX gas on Nagaoka’s neck on Jan. 4, 1995. Nagaoka was poisoned, but recovered.
Nagaoka heads a group for the families of cultists. He met with Niimi four times, from November 2004 to February 2005, and Niimi wrote Nagaoka 11 letters, in which he said he was grateful to Nagaoka for his concerns about him and his parents.
Throughout the trial, Niimi remained firm in his devotion to Asahara. “It is because of (Asahara) that I am here today,” he said repeatedly.
Niimi — known as Aum’s “home affairs minister” and one of Asahara’s closest aides — was directly involved in all of Aum’s murders except the Tokyo subway attack, which he abetted, according to the court.
He strangled cultist Shuji Taguchi in 1989 when the man tried to flee. He also strangled Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife, Satoko, and their 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko, later that year.
Niimi is also guilty of playing a key role in the Matsumoto sarin attack that killed seven people, including specifically being convicted of causing serious injury to four of the 100-plus hurt. In the same year, he took part in three more murders.
In the Tokyo attack, which killed 12 people and injured about 5,000, Niimi was one of the plotters and was a driver for the cultists who released the nerve gas on the trains.