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An ex-cop and three others with Aum Shinrikyo ties who were arrested earlier this month over the 1995 shooting of the National Police Agency chief were released Wednesday after prosecutors gave up on charging them due to lack of evidence.

The Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office was unable to file charges against the four because they lacked sufficient evidence to sustain a case against them, investigative sources said.

Although the Metropolitan Police Department still believes the cult was behind the shooting of then NPA chief Takaji Kunimatsu and plans to continue its investigation along this line, the prosecutors’ decision is likely to prompt police to launch a fundamental review of their probe into the 9-year-old case.

Yoshiyuki Kosugi, 39, a former cult member and ex-police officer, and three others were arrested July 7 over their alleged roles in the shooting of Kunimatsu near his Tokyo home.

The shooting took place just days after police launched nationwide raids on Aum following the cult’s fatal sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

The three others are Mitsuo Sunaoshi, 36, Tetsuya Uemura, 49, and Koichi Ishikawa, 35. Uemura and Ishikawa are former senior members of Aum, while Sunaoshi is still a member of the cult, which has renamed itself Aleph.

The authorities had until Wednesday to charge them.

After consulting the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office and the Tokyo High Prosecutor’s Office, the Tokyo prosecutors withheld any decision on the four as they released them from custody.

“With the evidence obtained so far, we can say there is a possibility of Aum Shinrikyo’s organized involvement (in the shooting), but it is difficult to determine the shooter and recognize the roles played by each of the suspects,” said Haruo Kasama, deputy chief prosecutor at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutor’s Office.

In May 1996, Kosugi, then a police officer, told police he was the gunman. Prosecutors, however, could not find any hard evidence to back up his statement and dropped the case, concluding that his confession was untrustworthy.

But Kosugi, who cooperated with the investigation, later reversed his statement, saying he did not shoot Kunimatsu and that he was “used” by the cult.

Kosugi also said he lent a coat to a man who looked like Aum member Satoru Hashimoto, whom police now believe was the shooter.

But Hashimoto, 37, who is appealing a death sentence over a separate case, has denied shooting Kunimatsu, investigative sources said.

Police also suspected that Kiyohide Hayakawa, another senior cultist appealing a death sentence, played the role of a commander in Kunimatsu’s shooting. However, Hayakawa similarly denied his involvement in the case, the sources said.

Traces of gunpowder found on the coat matched that of the bullets in the shooting — new material evidence obtained with the help of the world’s largest synchrotron radiation facility in Hyogo Prefecture, which did not exist at the time of the 1996 investigation.

But for the last several days, Kosugi — in another about-face — has again claimed that he did the shooting, thereby shattering the investigators’ theory in the case, the sources said.

The prosecutors eventually gave up charging the four, given that investigators have been unable to pinpoint the shooter, the sources said.

“It was truly regrettable that the prosecution authorities were unable to collect sufficient evidence to seek a trial” on the four suspects, Shigeo Ito, head of the MPD’s Public Security Bureau, told a news conference.

Ito said the MPD arrested the four because fresh evidence created deeper suspicions that they were involved in the shooting. He said the testimony of former police officer Kosugi was inconsistent.

“We believe we are not mistaken” in suspecting the organized involvement of Aum Shinrikyo in the shooting, he said, adding that 100 MPD investigators will continue to work on the case.

Kunimatsu was shot and severely wounded in front of his home in Arakawa Ward on March 30, 1995, 10 days after the sarin gas attack in Tokyo and eight days after police launched raids on Aum.

Kunimatsu took three bullets in the abdomen and other parts of his body.

He was temporarily in critical condition, but returned to official duty two months after the shooting. He retired as NPA chief in 1997.

Kosugi, Sunaoshi and Uemura were arrested on suspicion of attempting to murder Kunimatsu, while Ishikawa was arrested over an explosion at a religious scholar’s house, an act that police believe was carried out on the orders of Aum founder Shoko Asahara to confuse an investigation into the Kunimatsu shooting.

The statute of limitations for the Kunimatsu shooting expires in six years.

“The latest investigations have turned up material evidence that clearly indicate Aum Shinrikyo’s organized involvement” in the shooting, Kunimatsu told a news conference in the afternoon.

Kunimatsu, now chairman of a nonprofit organization promoting the use of helicopters in emergency medical treatment, said it “cannot be helped” that the prosecutors decided not to file charges against the arrested four. “I think it must have been a difficult case,” he added.

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