The Tokyo District Court sentenced former Aum Shinrikyo member Akemi Saito to 14 months in prison Tuesday for harboring fugitive cultist Makoto Hirata for more than 14 years.
Presiding Judge Noriaki Yoshimura ruled that it was because of Saito’s support that Hirata was able to avoid arrest for his alleged involvement in a 1995 kidnap-murder and a staged firebombing of the cult’s Tokyo headquarters.
Hirata turned himself in to police in late December.
But in rejecting the two-year prison term demanded by prosecutors, Yoshimura said the court also took into account that Saito, 49, turned herself in to police on Jan. 10 after Hirata did so on New Year’s Eve, and that she confessed and expressed sincere remorse.
But even considering these factors, the judge ruled out a suspended sentence, as sought by Saito’s lawyers, saying her crime was too grave for such leniency.
Saito’s chief lawyer, Taro Takimoto, criticized the ruling, saying putting his client behind bars is further punishing her for actions she regrets, including becoming an Aum follower and for placing her faith in its now-condemned founder, Shoko Asahara.
“Sending her to prison isn’t the only way for her to take responsibility,” said Takimoto, himself a victim of Aum’s crimes but who has since worked on behalf of former cultists.
“She is determined to live the rest of her life trying to pay back for her crimes,” Takimoto said. “It’s better to let her do that in society and not by putting her in jail.”
Saito used pseudonyms and landed jobs in the Tohoku region and Osaka to support herself and Hirata during his time on the run.
She testified that she initially didn’t know for certain whether Hirata was involved in the crimes he is accused of, but she felt she had to help him because he was senior to her in the cult.
Saito said that even after learning Hirata was involved in the two crimes, she continued to harbor him because she wanted to keep him from being wrongfully charged in connection with another Aum crime: the 1995 shooting of the director general of the National Police Agency, for which the statute of limitations expired in 2010.
When she turned herself in, Saito had ¥8 million in cash and offered it as compensation for people victimized by the cult’s heinous crimes.
Saito’s lawyers said they may appeal the ruling after consulting with her.