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Cultist downplays guilt as trial opens

Ex-Aum fugitive Hirata denies intent to kidnap Tokyo notary Kariya

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Makoto Hirata, one of the last Aum Shinrikyo cultists yet to be tried, on Thursday played down his involvement in the 1995 kidnapping of a Tokyo notary, telling the Tokyo District Court in his first trial session that he only drove the getaway car and had no inkling of what was to unfold.

Hirata’s trial is likely to cast a spotlight again on the litany of crimes committed by the doomsday cult in the 1990s. The trial, set to run for two months, also marks the first time an Aum defendant has been tried under the lay judge system.

A total of 189 Aum members have been brought to trial. Of them, 13 were sentenced to hang, including their 58-year-old guru, Shoko Asahara, and five to life imprisonment. Asahara’s real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.

Hirata was indicted for his alleged involvement in the February 1995 abduction and confinement of Tokyo notary Kiyoshi Kariya, whose sister fled the cult. Kariya, 69, was kidnapped and tortured, but Hirata hasn’t been charged with his death.

“I’m terribly sorry for causing all the pain to his family,” Hirata, 48, told the court, dressed in a black suit with his hair cut short.

Before killing Kariya, the cultists tortured him in a bid to locate his sister, who fled Aum after being pressed to “donate” her more than ¥270 million in real estate. He died after being given a fatal amount of anesthetic as a truth serum, after which his body was incinerated and the ashes dumped into a lake, cultists have previously testified.

Other Aum members have claimed Hirata played no part in Kariya’s slaying and only drove the getaway car, limiting his charges to kidnapping and illegal confinement.

Hirata’s lawyers are arguing that he didn’t know of the cult’s plan to kidnap Kariya and said he was told very little about it. Hirata thought he was sent to retrieve Kariya’s sister, they said.

Kariya’s son, Minoru, also appeared in court. Noting that Hirata mustered up enough courage to turn himself in, this action likely reflects his readiness to atone for the crime and to tell the truth, Kariya said.

“I don’t want compensation. Nor do I wish to prolong the trials. All I want is to hear the truth,” he said.

Although Hirata kept his appearance formal and neat, Kariya said there was something “penetrating” in his eyes, which led him to suspect the defendant is still guarded and not fully willing to speak of the truth.

“I do understand he kept suffering all those years he was on the run. All I want in return is for him to understand how I feel as well, or how desperate I am to know the truth,” the son said.

The other crimes and incidents he was indicted for include the 1995 bombing of the Tokyo condominium of Hiromi Shimada, then a professor at Japan Women’s University and an Aum sympathizer. The blast was staged by Aum to distract police from their probe of the cult. Hirata pleaded not guilty, again citing his lack of prior knowledge.

Hirata turned himself in on New Year’s Eve of 2011 after 17 years on the lam, prompting two other longtime fugitives, Naoko Kikuchi and Katsuya Takahashi, to eventually follow suit.

With Asahara at its helm, the infamous cult terrorized the nation in 1995 by orchestrating the unprecedented sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, leaving 13 dead and thousands injured. Hirata, however, did not take part in that operation.

Separately, the cult also used sarin to attack a residential area in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994, killing eight people.

Hirata joined the cult in 1987, when he was 22. As an accomplished karate practitioner, he occasionally served as Asahara’s security guard. He also went on an excursion to Russia in 1994 to join the cult’s military camp there and hone his shooting skills.

Hirata’s lawyers defended him as a “normal, pure” young man before joining the cult, noting his interest in spirituality was a result of his disillusionment with bubble-era Japan’s dogged pursuit of economic gain.

Fascinated with Asahara’s charisma, Hirata, just like Aum’s other disciples, eventually decided that total submission to the guru was the only way to attain peace of mind, they stressed.

In an unusual move, several Aum death-row inmates will be summoned to give testimony during the trial, including Tomomasa Nakagawa, Yoshihiro Inoue and Yasuo Hayashi, all of whom played a critical role in plotting and perpetrating the sarin attacks and other crimes.

Interest in the Hirata trial appears high.

Outside the district court Thursday morning, 1,155 people lined up to participate in a lottery for 56 gallery seats.

Aum, which started as a yoga circle in 1984 with glib, half-blind Asahara at its helm, obtained formal status as a religious institution in 1989. Its membership had expanded to over 10,000 by the time it carried out the subway attack.

Aum renamed itself Aleph in 2000. Its membership has been growing in recent years, according to police and public security authorities.