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Is Aum’s guru finally headed for the gallows?

by Mark Schreiber

Tomorrow, Nov. 21, the Supreme Court is expected to hand down its ruling on the appeal filed by Seiichi Endo, a former member of the Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth) cult. Endo, now 51, was sentenced to death in 2002 (upheld in 2007) for his role in the nerve gas attacks in Matsumoto City in June 1994 and the Tokyo subway system in March 1995 — in which 20 people died and thousands more suffered varying degrees of after-effects.

Before joining the cult, the Hokkaido native had been working on a doctorate in virology at one of Japan’s top universities.

As no other appeals are pending, Endo’s case is likely to mark the end of the 189 criminal trials involving cult members.

Including Endo, 11 out of some 120 convicts currently awaiting execution in Japan are former members of Aum. The best known is its 56-year-old founder, Shoko Asahara (real name: Chizuo Matsumoto).

Nikkan Gendai (Nov. 7) speculates that the Democratic Party of Japan-led government may now proceed with death sentences against Asahara and possibly some of the other cultists.

Minister of Justice Hideo Hiraoka has shown indications he favors signing orders to proceed. During a press conference shortly after taking office in early September, he was quoted as saying, “I’d like to get my thoughts in order. Until then I can’t make any decision [regarding executions].” But subsequent remarks made at the end of October suggested Hiraoka was moving in favor of proceeding.

An unnamed political source told Nikkan Gendai, “If the decision is made to execute Asahara, it will boost support for the Noda cabinet.”

But while justice is supposed to be blind, signing off on Asahara’s execution appears to be easier said than done. One legal stumbling block is that Asahara was convicted largely on circumstantial evidence. It is acknowledged that he did not murder anyone by his own hand (he’s legally blind), although several cult members testified they acted on his orders.

After Asahara underwent examinations by several psychiatrists, the court ruled him sane and accountable for his crimes. But he would not confer with his defense attorneys, and babbled incoherently while in the courtroom. He has neither acknowledged nor denied his involvement in any of the crimes.

The inability to mount an insanity defense notwithstanding, a sticking point that remains is the stipulation in the legal code that a condemned person must understand why he is being put to death — certainly debatable in Asahara’s case.

Another sticking point, from the legal perspective, is that it’s uncertain exactly how many murders the cult committed. Cult scientists allegedly developed a super oven for cremating the remains of their victims, which were then pulverized and scattered. While the cult, now called Aleph, still exists, many former members have gone missing, and it’s uncertain if they’re alive or if they chose to disappear, either out of remorse or in fear of their lives.

While opinion surveys tend to show a large majority of the public still favors capital punishment, the number of executions carried out has been declining for decades, and with the exception of a spike during the last LDP-headed government in 2008, during which 15 men (no women have been executed in Japan since 1965) were hanged, the number of convicts on death row has risen to an all-time high.

In recent years, the death penalty has been selectively applied largely to those who killed during the commission of another crime, such as armed robbery, or for slaying vulnerable people such as the elderly, females or children.

After more than two decades of writing about crime, I have also observed that Japan’s judiciary tends to vacillate over capital cases involving collective guilt — for example when homicides are committed by members of underworld syndicates (prison sentences for the killing of one yakuza by another tend to be remarkably short); political extremists such as the Japanese Red Army radicals of the 1970s; or by Aum, whose members supposedly committed the lethal gassings and other murders out of altruistic motives.

It’s ironic that one of Aum’s most vociferous defenders is also its most famous victim. Yoshiyuki Kono was the first responder to the 1994 sarin nerve gas attack in Matsumoto, which immediately brought him under police suspicion as having synthesized sarin by mixing pesticides he stored in a shed in his garden. Despite vociferous proclamations by chemists that such a feat was impossible, the police grilled Kono intensively and leaked innuendos about him to the media, upon which he was targeted by hate mails and threatening calls.

The gas also left Kono’s wife, Sumiko, totally disabled. She lingered in a semi-vegetative state for 14 years, until dying, at age 60, in August 2008.

“More than hating them (Aum), I’m grateful for this having brought me closer to my wife,” Kono, who now resides in Kagoshima City, tells the Sankei Shimbun (Nov. 15).

Kono has visited Tokyo’s Kosuge Prison for meetings with four of the Matsumoto perpetrators and received their apologies.

“It was sort of unreal, like meeting the actors who played heavies in a drama,” he recalls.

While many find Kono’s sympathy for the condemned cultists incomprehensible, he reminds them he knows how it feels to have been a crime suspect and the target of attacks by the mass media.

“Executing them absolutely won’t bring me any sense of relief,” he declares. “To go through life holding a grudge is a formula for misery.”