While the trial of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara continues at a snail’s pace more than five years after his arrest in 1995, a series of court rulings handed down this year has drawn a clear line between who among the cult’s senior figures will live and who will die.
Three senior cultists accused of releasing sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995, were sentenced to death by the Tokyo District Court. Twelve people were killed and more than 5,500 were injured in the incident.
With the rulings handed down on Yasuo Hayashi, Toru Toyoda and Kenichi Hirose in June and July, four of the five cultists accused of releasing the deadly nerve gas have now been sentenced to hang. The fourth member, Masato Yokoyama, was sentenced last October.
The only exception was former Aum doctor Ikuo Hayashi, whose life was spared when he was given a life sentence in 1998 for showing a “cooperative and repentant” attitude in his own and fellow cultists’ trials.
Two other cultists — Kiyohide Hayakawa and Satoru Hashimoto — were sentenced to death in July for playing active roles in another heinous crime, the 1989 murders of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family.
Meanwhile, the court sentenced Shigeo Sugimoto to life imprisonment in July for driving Yasuo Hayashi to the subway station on the day of attack. He was the third Aum getaway driver in the subway gassing to receive a life term.
Sugimoto also stood accused of playing an active role in the 1994 killings of cultists Kotaro Ochida and Toshio Tomita, who he strangled with a rope.
“The decisive factor between life or death apparently is whether the accused cultist played an active role in crimes that resulted in the death of more than one person, such as the subway attack, the July 1994 sarin gassing in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and the Sakamoto murders,” said lawyer Masaki Kito, who is representing the Matsumoto gassing victims in a civil lawsuit against the cult.
In sharp contrast with many other senior cult figures, Yoshihiro Inoue, formerly the cult’s “intelligence chief” responsible for many of its shady operations, was given a life sentence June 6.
He has been accused of involvement in four murder cases, including the 1995 sarin attack, but did not directly kill anyone in any of the cases.
While the district court recognized that Inoue was a top figure in the cult’s crime team, it concluded that his role in the subway attack was limited to “logistic support and coordination” and thus deserved a lighter sentence than those who executed the murders.
The rulings are also significant in that they clearly stipulated that Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, masterminded the cult’s heinous crimes and commanded his followers to execute them.
The defense lawyers of many of the cultists who pleaded guilty to the charges against them have asked the court for leniency, saying they were unable to disobey Asahara’s orders.
All the defendants who have so far pleaded guilty, except Ikuo Hayashi and Inoue, have appealed their cases to a higher court.
Yoshifu Arita, a journalist who has covered issues related to religious cults and brainwashing, said the district court ruling on Inoue was significant because it fully took into account that Asahara controlled his actions at the time Inoue committed the crimes.
“The ruling on Inoue, in which the judge acknowledged that he could not refuse Asahara’s orders because of mind control, was the first ruling in the series of Aum trials that recognized such claims by the defense,” said Arita, adding that other rulings on cult figures fail to properly examine the psychology of cult followers.
In determining Inoue’s punishment, the court ruled that it was “psychologically difficult for Inoue to refuse Asahara’s orders.”
In the rulings on Toyoda and Hirose, however, the court rejected lawyers’ claims that their responsibility should be reduced because Asahara controlled their minds. The court reasoned that the accused could have rejected Asahara’s orders to commit acts that were obviously wrong.
In the ruling on Hayakawa, the court went so far as to say that his blind faith in Asahara does not deserve special consideration, noting that it is “very common” for a criminal to blindly follow his seniors in organized crimes.
“As memories of the cult’s peculiar crimes fade away, the court, the media and the general public seem to regard Aum as merely a group of cruel criminals,” said Arita.
“But they must not forget that what is being tried are the crimes of cult members and their peculiar psychology,” he added.
Arita, who believes that only Asahara should receive capital punishment, said that in trials of Aum figures, the court should hire psychologists who have a long history of examining cult psychology and mind control, rather than psychiatrists.
“The court hired psychologists only for Inoue’s trial, whose reports functioned as one of the decisive factors in the sentence to spare his life,” Arita said.
While the rulings on one after another of his followers are given by the court, pledging that Asahara was the mastermind of all the cult’s crimes, the guru’s trial itself appears to be making little progress. The parties involved continue the detailed, almost nitpicking examination of evidence and testimonies on the high number of cases in which he is accused.
So far, deliberations on 12 of the 17 charges against Asahara have started in court. None have yet to be completed, and Asahara has not officially entered a plea on any of the charges.
Earlier this year, the court began examining the 1994 killing of cultist Toshio Tomita as the last of seven murder charges against Asahara. The court also began deliberating the foiled 1994 sarin gas attack on anti-Aum lawyer Taro Takimoto.
In July, they started examining the charge that Asahara ordered his followers to illegally produce 1,000 machineguns in 1994 and 1995.
While the lawyers representing Asahara have frequently been criticized for dragging out the trial proceedings, victims’ lawyer Kito says there is nothing wrong in their efforts to closely examine all the evidence against their client. The unprecedented massmurders certainly require thorough examination, he added.
Kito proposes that prosecutors should drop what he calls peripheral cases for which Asahara stands accused, including the cult’s arms and drug production, in order to speed up the trial proceedings.
“I believe the problem rests on prosecutors who stubbornly refuse to drop peripheral charges,” said Kito, warning that it would take another 20 years for the trial to be concluded if it proceeds at the current pace. However, he added that the prosecutors’ bureaucratic pride may make it difficult for them to change their plans.
The Aumrelated trials will resume in September after a one-month recess.
Sarin gas victimsAbout 30 percent of the survivors of the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system still suffer from stress-induced disorders resulting from the incident, a support group for the victims said Wednesday.
Medical examinations of 362 victims in Tokyo and Saitama Prefecture showed they suffered from posttraumatic stress disorder, according to group leader Saburo Abe, a lawyer and the bankruptcy administrator for Aum Shinrikyo, which is blamed for the attack.
Symptoms of the disorder include sleeping problems, depression and anxiety.
The exams, conducted between March and April, included eyesight and blood tests, as well as diagnostic interviews.
According to the results, 117 victims showed symptoms of the illness. Among them, 13 said they still avoid riding the subway and 60 percent said they suffer from poor vision.
Abe submitted letters to three ministers, asking the government to provide financial support for regular health examinations for the victims. The ministries he petitioned are the Health and Welfare Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Home Affairs Ministry.
“The victims need measures to assess their damage for five to 10 years in the future, and the government has to support them,” Abe said.
Twelve people were killed and more than 5,000 others were injured in the subway gas attack March 20, 1995.