The Tokyo High Court on Friday acquitted former Aum Shinrikyo cult member Naoko Kikuchi of attempted murder in a 1995 bomb attack, an event in which she was accused of willful complicity.
Overturning an earlier lower court decision, the high court accepted Kikuchi’s argument that she did not know of a plot to bomb the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters, an incident that left a secretary to then-Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima seriously injured.
Kikuchi, a member of the doomsday cult responsible for the notorious subway attack in Tokyo that year, which left 13 dead and thousands injured, was sentenced to five years in prison by the Tokyo District Court in June 2014. She had no direct role in the subway attack.
Friday’s acquittal, a rarity for ex-Aum members, saw 43-year-old Kikuchi released. She was arrested in 2012 after 17 years on the run.
In the trial, she admitted that on several occasions she transported dangerous chemicals including sulfuric acid from one Aum facility to another at the order of her superiors. She pleaded not guilty, saying she did not know the materials would be used to build a bomb.
Presiding Judge Takaaki Oshima slammed the district court’s ruling as lacking logic, saying Kikuchi most likely had no idea what she was engaged in. Given the nature of the chemicals, it is “reasonable to decide that she knew they were something dangerous, but it would have been difficult for her to conclude right away that they were to be used to manufacture a bomb for terrorism purposes,” Oshima said.
A parcel containing the bomb was sent to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government headquarters in May 1995 in a bid by the cult to distract police from pursuing leader Shoko Asahara, who went into hiding following the subway attack. Asahara’s real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.
Kikuchi’s lead lawyer, Toshihiko Takahashi, hailed the judgment as “common sense” and evidence-based, in that it dismissed a “leap of logic” made by the district court.
“There is a huge difference between knowing something is dangerous and knowing it is meant to kill somebody,” he said, adding Kikuchi appeared “relieved” by the ruling.
Meanwhile, victim Masaaki Utsumi criticized the outcome.
“The fact that the defendant was on the run for long clearly suggests that she was feeling guilty about what she did. It’s regrettable that the court didn’t recognize that,” he said in a statement. Ustumi, who opened the parcel, lost all fingers on his left hand when it exploded.
Others, however, welcomed the court’s decision. Journalist Shoko Egawa, who covered the Aum trials, said the ruling was appropriate and that she is glad the district court ruling would not set a precedent.
Egawa, herself a survivor of a failed toxic gas attack by Aum cultists, attributed last year’s harsher-than-expected ruling to an overly emotional response by lay judges involved in Kikuchi’s district court trial. Moreover, that trial took place with incautious speed and did not scrutinize the case, Egawa said.
She added that the high court’s decision will likely help facilitate Kikuchi’s rehabilitation.
“The ruling was a good thing because she is likely to be released feeling confident in the fairness of the society she is about to rejoin.”
Prosecutors can appeal.