A former Aum Shinrikyo fugitive was sentenced to life in prison Friday for his involvement in the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

The court said Koichi Kitamura, 31, drove Aum member Kenichi Hirose, 35, to a Marunouchi Line station in Tokyo, where Hirose boarded a train and punctured two bags of liquid sarin, killing one person.

Prosecutors in May demanded that Kitamura be sentenced to life for conspiracy to commit murder.

Nerve gas was released on five subway trains on March 20, 1995, killing 12 people and injuring more than 5,300.

The Tokyo District Court also found Kitamura guilty of harboring cult fugitive Takeshi Matsumoto between March and April 1995 and aiding his flight from justice.

Kitamura is the third Aum figure to be convicted in the subway attack. Cult doctor Ikuo Hayashi also received a life term for his role in the attack and Masato Yokoyama, former deputy chief of Aum’s science and technology unit, was sentenced to hang. Eight other cultists are still on trial for allegedly releasing the gas or driving getaway cars.

Yokoyama was sentenced in September for releasing sarin in the attack but Hayashi escaped the gallows for a similar role. The court apparently took Hayashi’s repentant and cooperative behavior in consideration.

Because Hayashi’s sentence is widely considered an exception, observers believe the Yokoyama and Kitamura verdicts will serve as the precedent — those who released nerve gas will receive the death penalty, while their getaway drivers will get life in prison.

Judge Kiyoshi Kimura said Kitamura played an indispensable role, driving Hirose to the station and picking him up after he released the gas.

“Though the defendant knew the deadliness of the nerve gas, he took part without hesitation, believing the attack was an ‘act of salvation,'” Kimura said, severely censuring the defendant for his self-righteous motive.

But Kimura added that the attack was on the orders of cult founder Shoko Asahara, who held sole power and used his devout followers to protect himself and Aum from law enforcement authorities.

Kitamura sat up straight and closed his eyes in a meditative position as the presiding judge read out the sentence. Afterward, his lawyer said in a statement that he believes Friday’s ruling was a result of the defendant’s failure to apologize to those victimized in the attack.

The lawyer claimed Kitamura is still under Asahara’s spell and thus is also a victim of the cult, arguing the court did not fully buy this point.

“I will discuss with the defendant and decide whether to appeal the case to a higher court,” said the lawyer, who declined to be named.

Kitamura admitted in his first trial hearing in May 1997 that he drove Hirose to the subway station.

But he denied conspiring with Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, claiming he did not know that sarin gas was deadly. Asahara stands accused of masterminding the attack, a deadly gas attack the previous year and other heinous crimes. He has yet to be convicted.

According to the court, Kitamura drove Hirose from a hideout in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward to Yotsuya Station on the Marunouchi Line on the morning of March 20, 1995. Hirose allegedly took a train bound for Ogikubo and punctured the two plastic bags. In addition to the one death, about 350 people sustained injuries from exposure to the nerve gas.

Kitamura also helped Takeshi Matsumoto, 33, who was wanted in connection with the abduction of Tokyo notary public Kiyoshi Kariya, avoid arrest, the court said. Matsumoto is currently serving a four-year prison term for his role in Kariya’s kidnapping in February 1995. The notary allegedly was killed at an Aum complex and cremated. His remains were never found.

Kitamura was also a fugitive when he was arrested in November 1996 in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.

He had either refused to testify or remained silent in court. Although he resigned from Aum after his arrest, in a hearing in March he said he still had faith in Asahara.

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