A senior Aum Shinrikyo member on death row downplayed during testimony Tuesday at the Tokyo District Court the involvement of Makoto Hirata in the 1995 abduction and confinement of a Tokyo notary.
It was the first time since the lay judge system came into being in 2009 that a convict waiting for the death penalty has been summoned to the witness stand.
In the fourth session of Hirata’s lay judge trial, Tomomasa Nakagawa, 51, a former doctor sentenced to death for his involvement in a series of heinous crimes committed by Aum Shinrikyo members, testified in favor of Hirata, who has stated that he only drove the getaway car and did not know of the cult’s plan to kidnap and torture Tokyo notary Kiyoshi Kariya.
“I hardly remember he ever spoke out during our meeting (prior to the kidnapping),” Nakagawa testified.
“My understanding is that Hirata was called out just as an emergency assistant,” he said, stressing that the defendant never had any role in Aum’s other kidnappings.
Nakagawa’s death sentence was finalized by the Supreme Court in 2011. His crimes include involvement in the 1989 murder of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family, and the 1995 mass sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system that claimed the lives of 13 people. He was found guilty of having a role in the deaths of 25 people.
Nakagawa appeared in the court under extremely tight security.
A large screen was put in place before Nakagawa gave his testimony so no one in the gallery could catch a glimpse of him. In addition, as a safety precaution, dozens of bulletproof glass panels were set up between the gallery and the main part of the courtroom.
As the questioning kicked off, Nakagawa expressed an articulate apology in a sonorous voice.
“Before I start, I just wanted to say how terribly sorry I am for what happened to Kariya. After so many years (since the incident), a part of my memory might be fading. But I’d appreciate your understanding,” he said.
As he testified, Nakagawa occasionally sounded on the verge of tears and fell into silence as if searching for words.
Members of Aum Shinrikyo kidnapped and fatally tortured Kariya in an attempt to locate his sister, who had fled the cult. Nakagawa repeatedly injected him with an anesthetic to keep him barely conscious.
Nakagawa said the use of anesthetics was a favorite tactic of the cult to elicit confessions, mostly as a counterespionage effort. Kariya died after being tortured, but Nakagawa said he had not expected his victim to die.
“I totally understand if his family thinks I did it on purpose, given the situation, but I had no intention at all of killing him,” Nakagawa said in an emotional tone.
Asked about his relationship with Hirata, Nakagawa said the defendant was the one who answered his call when he, as a rookie doctor, phoned Aum Shinrikyo headquarters to speak of his inner agony. Hirata “wholeheartedly listened to my story,” Nakagawa said, describing him as not necessarily being very eloquent but very sincere in nature.
He also described Hirata as occasionally timid, and this is perhaps why he waited 17 years to turn himself in.
Two more death-row inmates are scheduled to testify during Hirata’s trial, which will last until early March.
Former prosecutor Yoji Ochiai speculated that Hirata is likely looking at eight to 10 years in prison, given the “malicious” nature of the Kariya abduction and two other crimes he is charged with, including the 1995 bombing of the Tokyo condominium of professor Hiromi Shimada, who was sympathetic to Aum.
“Plus, he was on the run (for 17 years). There is no way that will work in his favor,” Ochiai said.