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Hirata gets nine years for role in Aum kidnapping of notary

by Tomohiro Osaki

Staff Writer

Former Aum Shinrikyo fugitive Makoto Hirata was found guilty and sentenced Friday to nine years in prison for his role in the 1995 kidnapping and confinement of Tokyo notary Kiyoshi Kariya and two other crimes.

Despite his denials, Hirata “dutifully performed his roles in organized crimes he was instructed to engage in, fully aware of” their nature, presiding Judge Hiroaki Saito of the Tokyo District Court said of the ex-cultist’s claims that his involvement in Kariya’s abduction was not premeditated.

Hirata, 48, was also convicted of having a role in two bombings in 1995, first of the condominium belonging to university professor Hiromi Shimada and then to an Aum facility in Tokyo. Both bombings were designed as subterfuge to deflect suspicion of Aum for its major crimes.

After 17 years on the lam, Hirata turned himself in on New Year’s Eve 2011.

Judge Saito said Hirata’s decision to participate in three illegal activities in a short interval suggests he had no hesitation to commit the crimes.

Friday’s verdict brought to an end a nearly two-month trial that abounded with abnormalities. The presence of Hirata and the appearance of high-profile convicted Aum cultists to testify put authorities on extremely high alert. Among the security measures, bulletproof glass barriers were placed in the courtroom.

The trial marked the first time an Aum cultist was tried under the lay judge system introduced in 2009. In another first for the lay judge system, convicted criminals on death row were summoned to testify.

The trial focused on whether Hirata had advance knowledge of the crimes he eventually committed. He insisted that he became embroiled in two of the crimes against his will.

In February 1995, high-ranking Aum members, under the orders of guru Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, abducted Kariya and injected him with a lethal amount of anesthetic to interrogate him over the whereabouts of his wealthy sister, who had fled the cult.

Kariya eventually died while in Aum’s clutches, but due to a lack of evidence, none of the cultists involved in his death was convicted of murder, only of causing injury resulting in death.

Hirata testified that he knew nothing about the abduction beforehand, saying his superiors’ orders were barely comprehensible. He also argued that his role in the caper was peripheral, as he only drove the getaway car.

On the bombing of the professor’s residence, Hirata again claimed a lack of advance knowledge. The bombing was carried out just a day before the infamous sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, that left 13 people dead and thousands sickened. With Shimada generally considered sympathetic to Aum Shinrikyo, the cultists hoped the bombing would make it look like Aum was under some kind of religious attack and derail the police investigation into the forthcoming sarin attack.

Hirata did admit to standing guard as his fellow cultists threw explosives into their facility in Tokyo and ran away in 1995, another organized attempt by the cult to look like a victim.

Prosecutors attacked Hirata’s claims of total lack of foreknowledge, citing the testimony of two of his superiors in the cult, Yoshihiro Inoue and Noboru Nakamura. Both said it was their “clear” recollection that they explained to Hirata beforehand what his responsibility would be in the crimes. The prosecutors had sought a 12-year sentence.

The court found their testimony largely trustworthy. Although it did acknowledge that the veracity of Inoue’s testimony was somewhat questionable, given his tendency to exaggerate, it pointed out that both convicts’ sentences have been finalized, meaning they would have “no good reason to deliberately testify against” Hirata.

“Although the defendant did turn himself in eventually, by staying on the run for so long he caused nonnegligible consequences to society and Japan’s legal system,” Judge Saito said in giving no extenuating credit to Hirata for finally surrendering to the authorities.