Two Aum Shinrikyo followers were sentenced to death Monday for releasing the nerve gas sarin on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995 and for illegally manufacturing firearms.
The Tokyo District Court found Toru Toyoda, 32, and Kenichi Hirose, 36, guilty of releasing sarin on subway trains in the nerve gas attack, which killed 12 people and injured more than 5,500.
With Monday’s ruling on Toyoda and Hirose, four of the five Aum Shinrikyo members accused of releasing sarin on the subway trains have been sentenced to death.
Presiding Judge Manabu Yamazaki denounced the attack as an “indiscriminate crime in which the cultists used any means to pursue their interests” and “unprecedented mass murder that ignored human dignity.” Toyoda and Hirose deserve the death penalty given the plight of the victims and their next of kin, the judge said.
The pair were also convicted for their role in the manufacturing of machineguns in 1994 and 1995 as part of the cult’s efforts to build up its arsenal.
Toyoda also took part in the foiled cyanide gas attack at Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and sent a letter bomb in May 1995 to then Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima, wounding a metropolitan government official, the court said.
The court meanwhile sentenced Shigeo Sugimoto, 41, to life in prison for driving one of the sarin attackers to a train station and for his own involvement in the murder of two followers in January and June 1994.
According to Judge Yamazaki, Toyoda, who joined the cult in 1986, pierced two plastic bags containing sarin aboard a Hibiya Line train with the tip of an umbrella as it approached Ebisu Station during morning rush hour on March 20, 1995.
One passenger was killed and more than 500 others who were aboard the train and in Kamiyacho Station were injured.
Hirose, who joined Aum in 1988, used the same method to release the nerve gas on a Marunouchi Line train near Ochanomizu Station, leaving one passenger dead and about 350 others aboard the train injured.
Both Toyoda and Hirose were allegedly acting on the orders of Aum leader Shoko Asahara when they carried out the attack, which was planned to distract police from what appeared to be an imminent raid on the cult.
With Monday’s rulings on Toyoda and Hirose, all five cultists accused of releasing the gas on the trains have received their sentences.
Yasuo Hayashi, 42, and Masato Yokoyama, 36, were sentenced to death but have since appealed the rulings to higher court.
However, Ikuo Hayashi, 53, a former Aum doctor, was sentenced to life in prison, because the court took into account the fact that he voluntarily surrendered and acted in a cooperative and repentant manner during his trial.
A total of 14 cult followers, including Asahara himself, have been charged with conspiring to carry out the subway sarin attack.
Toyoda and Hirose — key members of Aum’s science team — also played important roles in the cult’s project to manufacture 1,000 machineguns between June 1994 and March 1995. Hirose had produced a prototype assault rifle based on the AK-74 by January 1995, the court said.
Toyoda acquired a master’s degree in physics at the University of Tokyo and Hirose received one at Waseda University. Toyoda, together with four other members of the cult, was also held responsible for placing bags of cyanide in a men’s toilet in an underground concourse at Shinjuku Station on May 5, 1995, in a bid to distract police from their imminent move to arrest Asahara, it said. The bags were safely disposed of by a station worker before anybody was injured.
He also mailed a parcel bomb to Tokyo Gov. Aoshima that same month, wounding a metropolitan government official who opened it, the court said.
Meanwhile, Sugimoto, who joined Aum in 1986, drove fellow cultist Yasuo Hayashi to Ueno Station, where Hayashi boarded a Hibiya Line train to release sarin in the attack, the court said. Hayashi was sentenced to death last month for killing eight people in the attack.
Sugimoto also played a role in the killing of cultists Kotaro Ochida and Toshio Tomita in January and June 1994, strangling Tomita with a rope and watching as Ochida suffered a similar fate.
In both cases, Sugimoto voluntarily confessed to taking part in the killings. He drove and served as a bodyguard for Asahara, who is also said to have “prosecuted spies” within the cult.
Sugimoto’s sentence marked the third ruling in which a cult follower who drove a getaway car in the gas attack was given a life term. The other two have already filed appeals.
Toyoda, Hirose and Sugimoto pleaded guilty and apologized in court to relatives of the victims.
But Toyoda and Hirose asked that they not be sentenced to hang, saying that it would be “unreasonable” for them to receive the same punishment that Asahara is widely expected to receive.
Sugimoto claimed he merely abetted in the crimes and played only a peripheral and replaceable role in the attack, claiming that the crime could have been carried out without him.
The defendants’ lawyers claimed the three were merely following Asahara’s orders and thus did not jointly conspire in the attack. The lawyers also claimed that the three were under Asahara’s “mind control” and thus unable to refuse his orders. The judge, however, said the three spontaneously played significant roles in the crimes and thus could not escape from their grave criminal responsibility.
He also denied they were subject to Asahara’s mind-control and could refuse his orders, citing the defendants’ testimony that they felt a sense of guilt for carrying out the attack.
Relatives call for death
Relatives of victims of the 1995 subway gas attack on Monday called for a swift conclusion to the trial of Aum Shinrikyo leader Shoko Asahara.
Speaking at a news conference at the Tokyo District Court after the day’s session, in which two former cultists were sentenced to death, a 29-year-old woman who lost her 54-year-old father in the attack said delays would fuel public fears over further criminal acts.
“Everyone wants a ruling immediately. I cannot understand why it is taking so long,” said the woman, who wished to remain anonymous.
Shizue Takahashi, 53, whose 50-year-old husband worked at Kasumigaseki subway station and died after removing a bag containing sarin gas from a train carriage, also called for the death penalty for Asahara.
“But I don’t know whether he deserves the same punishment as others who apologized and told the truth,” she said, referring to the sentences handed down to cult members that day.