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Sentences handed down this year on two Aum Shinrikyo figures drew a clear line between life and death.

The Tokyo District Court sentenced Kazuaki Okazaki, 38, to death in October for his role in the 1989 murder of Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, the attorney’s wife and their 1-year-old son. Okazaki was one of the six accused of carrying out the murders on orders from Aum founder Shoko Asahara, the court said.

The killings are believed to have marked the point where members of Aum embarked on a raft of heinous crimes culminating in the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, which killed 12 people and sickened thousands.

Ikuo Hayashi, 48, Aum’s one-time doctor, was sentenced to life in May for releasing the nerve gas on a rush-hour subway car in the 1995 attack.

The court judged that Hayashi’s confession to being one of the perpetrators was tantamount to a voluntary surrender and thus spared him the gallows despite his being a party to indiscriminate mass murder.

The court said Hayashi deserved to hang for his crimes, but added that leniency is appropriate because his confession greatly contributed to the investigation and solution of the case, including the arrest of Asahara.

Okazaki’s partial confession to police before his arrest was not regarded as grounds for leniency, however, and he was sent to death row. Okazaki has filed an appeal. Hayashi has not.

The rulings are expected to serve as precedents for other key Aum figures on trial for murder, including Asahara, whose trial logged its 100th session this year.

In another twist early this month, Yoshihiro Yasuda, the guru’s chief attorney, was arrested on suspicion of conspiring with the president of a real estate firm and his son to prevent the firm’s rental income from being seized by a government-backed loan recovery body.

With the arrest of Yasuda, who played a key role in the defense team, Asahara’s fate has is more cloudy than ever.

Because Yasuda had refused to be identified as the chief lawyer for Asahara, Osamu Watanabe has served as a spokesman for the 12-member, court-appointed counsel. But it is believed Yasuda led the defense strategy.

In court, Yasuda effectively posed pointed questions to each witness and often yielded crucial testimony from cultists unwilling to testify.

(By Japan Times court reporters)

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