The Tokyo District Court sentenced a one-time senior Aum Shinrikyo figure to eight years in prison Monday for his role in the 1989 murder of a 21-year-old cultist and the cremation of a follower who died during training in 1993.

Judge Masazo Ogura handed down the sentence to Toshiyasu Ouchi, 48, former head of Aum’s Russian branch. Prosecutors had sought a 10-year prison term.

According to the court, Ouchi conspired with Aum founder Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, and other cult members to strangle Aum member Shuji Taguchi, 21, at a cult facility in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, in February 1989, after learning of Taguchi’s intention to leave the cult.

In June 1993, he and other Aum members cremated the body of Naoki Ochi, 25, who allegedly died during training.

Ouchi’s defense lawyers had maintained that he neither participated directly in the killing of Taguchi nor conspired with Asahara, because the guru’s directions had absolute power within the cult.

They insisted Ouchi should be found innocent or recognized merely as an accessory to the murder.

However, the judge ruled that while the defendant had questioned and initially tried to resist Asahara’s orders to kill, in the end he took part in the crimes of his own free will.

“It is not a situation in which you can blame Asahara alone and lighten your own responsibility,” the judge said.

“The crime was selfish, as (Ouchi) disregarded the lives of rank-and-file followers for the sake of the cult. The manner of the murder was vicious and inhuman,” he concluded.

Asahara has been on trial for alleged involvement in numerous serious crimes, including the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, which killed 12 people and injured thousands.

Prosecutors have decided to drop some of the lesser charges against the guru in an effort to speed up the court process, which observers point out could take many more years. He meanwhile has yet to be convicted on any of the key counts.

Ouchi, who was one of the oldest members of the cult, became chief of Aum’s Russian branch in 1995, succeeding another senior Aum member, Fumihiro Joyu.

Ouchi was arrested in 1998 in Cyprus on suspicion of staying on the island illegally and extradited to Japan. His name had been on an international wanted list for Taguchi’s murder.

The court has sentenced four Aum followers to death for their part in the subway gas attack. Two cult members were sentenced to death for killing the family of an anti-Aum lawyer in 1989.

One member was sentenced to death for both the lawyer’s murder and another nerve gas attack in 1994.

Last December, Aum owned up to its involvement in the subway gassing for the first time and apologized to the victims. In January, it claimed it had about 1,200 followers and stated it was changing its name to Aleph, the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet.

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