Friday’s sentencing of former Aum Shinrikyo fugitive Makoto Hirata to nine years in prison was surprisingly harsh, possibly a result of amateurish anger felt by lay judges at the social injustice, a well-known expert said after the ruling.
Shoko Egawa, a veteran freelance journalist who has scrutinized the Aum trials for years and who herself was once attacked by its members due to her outspoken criticism of the cult, said Hirata, 48, doesn’t deserve nine years behind bars. The ruling, she said, also lacked balance when compared with verdicts given to other cultists.
The trial marked the first time an Aum member was tried under the lay judge system introduced in 2009.
Egawa described the harsher-than-expected ruling as confirmation of the popular belief that the lay judge system, under which defendants are scrutinized by six ordinary citizens, tends to result in stricter penalties.
During the two-month trial, Minoru Kariya, the son of a notary believed fatally drugged by the cult, tearfully recounted years his family spent trying unsuccessfully to overcome their grief. His testimony also brought tears to the eyes of the lay judges.
“This is entirely my guess. But I do feel like that speech by Mr. Kariya somehow convinced the lay judges that someone who caused that significant amount of pain to the (next of kin) shouldn’t be allowed to be back in society after only a few years or so,” Egawa said.
Aside from his role in the 1995 kidnapping of Tokyo notary Kiyoshi Kariya, Hirata was also found guilty of his involvement in the bombing of professor Hiromi Shimada’s residence the same year. Violations of the explosives law are dealt with severely, subject to at least seven years in prison and sometimes capital punishment.
Egawa noted that senior Aum figure Yasuo Hayashi, who also took part in the bombing, was neither charged with nor convicted in the case, even though he and Hirata were exactly under the same circumstances. Also, cultists Yoshihiro Ida and Takeshi Matsumoto, despite their more direct role in abducting Kariya, were sentenced to lighter terms, six years and four years, respectively.
Egawa, acknowledging these discrepancies are probably the result of the lay judges’ strong sense of justice, added: “The fact that Hirata remained on the run (for 17 years) probably instilled the strong fear in them that their society was severely endangered, too.”
The journalist also expressed grave concern that subjecting Hirata to such a long prison term will only work against his rehabilitation. All it does, she said, is further aggravate his passivity that took hold in his youth as he docilely acted on the whims of guru Shoko Asahara.
“What he needs is to learn to act on his own initiative as he copes with the difficulties of real life out there,” she said.