Mind control at the hands of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara was a key defense argument for many of the 11 cultists sentenced to death and the six others handed life prison terms for carrying out Aum’s heinous crimes — an argument that had little if any effect.
As the convicted cultists pursue their appeals, including before the Supreme Court, their lawyers continue to seek leniency, claiming their clients were brainwashed by the guru and his teachings — a factor the courts have partially recognized.
In the case of Kiyohide Hayakawa, who was convicted of playing a role in the 1989 murders of Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and errant cultist Shuji Taguchi, the Tokyo District Court determined the accused was in a “state of absolute obedience to the guru, in which it was unthinkable to refuse his orders.”
But Hayakawa was nonetheless sentenced to hang. The judge noted, “It is very common in organized crimes that a member of a lower rank blindly follows the orders of his senior, and that does not lessen his criminal responsibility.”
In sentencing Toru Toyoda and Kenichi Hirose to death for their role in the 1995 sarin attack on Tokyo’s subway system, the court also acknowledged the pair were in a state in which they could not reject the guru’s orders.
Journalist Yoshifu Arita, who has closely watched the Aum trials, criticized the court for not taking into adequate account the effects of mind control.
“The court completely lacks the view that it is dealing with crimes committed by a cult,” Arita said. “Sentences are handed down under the same criteria as any other criminal offense, and punishments are based on the number of people killed in the crime involving the accused cultist. But the judges should have first realized that the crimes would never have happened if it had not been for Asahara.”
Arita said society has wrongly perceived the cultists as part of a bizarre fringe group. They could have been anybody, he said, noting Asahara used brainwashing tactics that entailed the use of drugs.
In “the initiation of Christ” ploy, Aum members had to drink a liquid containing LSD, and then were made to sit in solitary confinement with a photo of the guru and listen to his recorded sermons for up to 10 hours.
Because they did not know they had been drugged, they thought their hallucinations were the result of some religious miracle, thereby solidifying their dedication to the guru, Arita said.
“Because the court neglected to look into the mechanism of mind control, our society will remain vulnerable to such crimes in the future,” he said.
Arita said he supports the 2000 district court-imposed life prison term handed to Yoshihiro Inoue. Prosecutors had demanded the death penalty, saying he served as the commander of the 1995 subway attack.
In addition to recognizing that Inoue was a mere “liaison,” the court took into account that he was under the influence of Asahara’s mind control, Arita pointed out.
“At his lawyers’ request, the judge allowed Inoue to undergo psychoanalysis, which showed he was still under Asahara’s mind control. The psychological counseling that followed made him reflect deeply on his deeds” — a factor that may have led to his avoiding capital punishment, he said.
Sadao Asami, professor emeritus at Tohoku Gakuin University and an expert on religious studies who counseled Inoue, also criticized the court for not giving other cultists the chance to receive similar treatment. Only a few judges, lawyers and prosecutors in Japan understand the importance of such treatment for offenders, he said.
“Cultists were not given a chance to look back and repent, and were just sentenced to death, as if that was the objective of the trial. Those in the judiciary feel they are above having to learn (about mind control) even if that may be relevant,” he said.
Asami noted he would have been able to open up Asahara if given the opportunity, possibly helping resolve the mystery surrounding his alleged crimes.
Toyo Atsumi, a professor of criminal law at Chuo University, dismissed this argument and said remorse or the mind control argument should not be mitigating factors in handing down verdicts for crimes of this gravity.
Inoue’s sentence was based solely on his degree of involvement in the attack, Atsumi said, noting mind control is too elusive an argument to be used to determine punishment, especially for members of Aum, who joined the cult at their own volition.