Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara was sentenced to death Friday for ordering a series of crimes carried out by his disciples, including the March 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack.
The widely expected sentence was handed down by the Tokyo District Court after a trial lasting seven years and 10 months. Asahara, 48, stood accused on 13 counts in connection with crimes that caused 27 deaths.
The counsel for the guru, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, immediately filed an appeal.
As presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa read out the sentence, telling Asahara, “The accused is sentenced to death,” the cult founder stood slouching, and acted as if he did not understand.
When told by the judge to stand in front of him to hear the ruling, eight guards had to drag Asahara to him.
During most of the session, which lasted five hours and 15 minutes, Asahara looked glum and kept silent with his arms folded. He occasionally became agitated, turning his face to the judges and gallery, and acted as if he wanted to talk to the guards. But he did not seem to react to any specific part of the ruling.
He also yawned, chewed and sometimes even looked like he was smiling, but none of the facial expressions lasted more than a few seconds.
The charges against him included murder, attempted murder, abduction and confinement resulting in death, destruction of a corpse, plotting murder and violation of the Arms Manufacturing Law.
Judge Ogawa said Asahara bears an “extremely grave” criminal responsibility, considering the nature of the crimes, their frequency, scale, objective, impact on society and the sentiments of the victimized.
“The accused committed the crimes in the process of realizing his fantasy of expanding the cult through militarization, and to reign as its king in the name of salvation.
“His objectives for the 13 crimes that led to the death of as many as 27 people and injuries to 21 . . .. is so wretched and stupid that it merits the ultimate criticism,” Ogawa said.
The judge noted the crimes did not end at targeting individuals, but led to indiscriminate terrorist attacks using lethal gases, including sarin.
The cult used religion as a cover for the crimes, and Asahara not only never apologized to any of the victims, but was even sufficiently cowardly to attempt to pin responsibility on his disciples, Ogawa added.
Because Asahara did not directly kill anyone and never officially entered a plea, the key point in the marathon trial was whether there was a conspiracy between him and the disciples who actually carried out the deeds.
Ogawa ruled that Asahara was the mastermind behind all 13 cases.
Most of the proof of his conspiracy was based on his disciples’ testimonies, which were “concrete, detailed and trustworthy,” the judge said, adding that the cult followers who testified had no reason to lie about Asahara’s involvement. Many of the cultists who pointed the finger at the guru, however, were also on trial for actually perpetrating the crimes.
Asahara’s role as ringleader has also already been established in rulings on individual cultists. Eleven senior cult members have been sentenced to death and six to life imprisonment by the same court, which had ruled that they committed their crimes in conspiracy with Asahara.
Following an account of how the cult came about and flourished, Ogawa explained each of the 13 cases in chronological order and how Asahara could be proved to have been responsible for each.
In each attack by the cult where sarin was used, including the 1995 attack on Tokyo’s subway system and the 1994 attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, Asahara’s defense had questioned during the trial both whether the gas was lethal and whether it was actually sarin.
His defense had also claimed some of the crimes he stood accused of were meant to be “mahamudra” — an ascetic training whereby disciples are made to do impossible feats — and thus, even if the crimes did occur, Asahara could not be held liable.
But the judge dismissed these arguments as groundless.
To show that Asahara exercised control over the cultists, the judge said that two days prior to the March 20, 1995,
Tokyo sarin attack, Asahara was in a limousine with five other disciples and ordered the late Hideo Murai to “take full command” of the attack.
Five cult members released the gas in five cars on trains on three subway lines, killing 12 people and injuring 3,794.
This testimony by cultist Yoshihiro Inoue was earlier challenged by Asahara’s defense team, who claimed it was untrustworthy. The defense, who stated the attack was orchestrated by Murai and Inoue, claimed Inoue made false statements to put the blame on Murai and make his involvement seem minor.
But Ogawa ruled that Inoue’s testimony was credible, as it explains the circumstances surrounding the cult at the time and because it supports other testimony by Seiichi Endo, who testified that he was given direct orders by Asahara to produce sarin.
In the June 27, 1994, sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, which killed seven people and injured 144, the judge said Asahara gave orders to four disciples about a week before the attack that they “disperse the gas at the Matsumoto District Court, which is dealing with a case involving Aum, to check its effect.” This information was provided in an earlier investigation by cultist Tomomitsu Niimi, who also faces the gallows.
Turning to the murders of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and 1-year old son in Nov. 4, 1989, the judge said Asahara called five cultists a few days beforehand and said, “The biggest problem for the cult is lawyer Sakamoto. . . . He will be a big obstruction for the cult in the future.” This information was provided by followers Kiyohide Hayakawa and Kazuaki Okazaki.
Six cultists entered the lawyer’s residence and strangled or suffocated the family, the court said.
As further proof of his complicity, Ogawa noted that after the murders, Asahara told the cultists involved, “If three are killed, it’s the death penalty. I’m also guilty.”
The judge also commented on Asahara’s control over disciples involved in the eight cases, in which he stood accused of murder and attempted murder of people Aum regarded as enemies, including cultists.
With Asahara remaining silent throughout most of the trial and with Murai, whom the defense claimed to be the orchestrator of many of the attacks, killed by a mobster in a 1995 knife attack in front of reporters, both the defense and prosecution had a difficult time establishing their points, with most proof presented in their closing arguments last year based solely on cultists’ testimony. The defense document ran to 814 pages, while the prosecution provided a 285-page closing argument.
While the prosecutors had determined Asahara to be the mastermind behind all the crimes, calling him “the most vicious criminal in our country’s history,” his lawyers had blamed his disciples for carrying out the attacks by “misunderstanding the doctrines and getting out of control,” as they were furious at society’s criticism of Aum.
Prosecutors had also stated that Asahara ordered each crime solely to protect his authority and satisfy his greed for power, and that the cult has no real religious nature.
But the defense objected strongly to this claim, saying that by completely dismissing the suggestion that Asahara was a great religious leader and fabricating this story, the prosecutors were making it impossible to determine why so many crimes were carried out by the cult.
Fearing a lengthy trial, prosecutors revised the charges against Asahara in January 1998, reducing the number of injured people named in the indictment to 18 from 3,938 for the two sarin attacks, to lessen testimony. For the same reason, they dropped four of the 17 charges against him in October 2000, which were related to the production of illegal drugs such as LSD, amphetamines, mescaline and thiopental.
Although he has not spoken in court for the last five years, Asahara was initially very talkative and was thrown out of the courtroom five times for babbling, sometimes in unintelligible mixtures of English and Japanese.
At a press conference following the trial, Asahara’s defense team criticized Friday’s judgment for leaving a lot of holes in the case.
“Today’s ruling only glazed over the assertions made by the prosecutors. Something without substance was used as its main pillar,” said Osamu Watanabe, head of Asahara’s defense team. As a result, it will be impossible to find out why the crimes occurred, he said.
He cited Murai’s role, which he said was completely ignored, as an example, and said the judge, in the same way as the prosecution, had failed to verify Inoue’s testimony.
“Even (Inoue’s) prosecutors are claiming that he is lying to avoid the death penalty, but the judge completely ignored that again today. The ruling was not persuasive,” he said.
The defense team also stated during the conference that they will resign as Asahara’s counsel after the lower court’s ruling, adding that a private lawyer has already been appointed for Asahara’s appeal.
“I hope the new defense will keep pursuing the questions we have been pursuing,” Watanabe said.