National / Crime & Legal

Japan marks anniversary of sarin attacks as execution speculation grows

AFP-JIJI, Kyodo

Tuesday marked the 23rd anniversary of a deadly sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system, as speculation grows that members of the cult behind it could soon be executed.

At Kasumigaseki Station, one of the targets of the attack, subway staff gathered at 8 a.m., around the same time the events occurred on March 20, 1995, to observe a moment of silence and offer flowers.

Toyohiko Otomo, the 57-year-old chief of the station, and Shizue Takahashi, 71, who lost her husband, Kazumasa, an assistant stationmaster, were among those who offered flowers at the station.

“We will work together to make further efforts to ensure the safety of passengers so that they can feel safe using the service,” Tokyo Metro Co. said in a statement.

The subway operator set up stands to allow people to offer flowers at Kasumigaseki, Kodenmacho, Tsukiji and three other stations where lives were lost in the attack.

Thirteen people were killed and thousands more injured when members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult released bags of sarin on packed rush hour trains, piercing the pouches with sharpened umbrella tips before fleeing.

The nerve agent caused horrendous deaths and injuries, and prompted mass panic, turning the busy capital into something resembling a war zone.

Passengers streamed out of stations vomiting, coughing and struggling to breathe, with emergency services administering life-saving treatment by the side of the road.

Ambulances streamed through the streets, and helicopters landed on major roads to assist with evacuations.

On that day, Kazumasa Takahashi unwittingly picked up a punctured packet of the nerve gas from the floor of one of the trains at Kasumigaseki Station.

He and another colleague died.

“I came here today, with the same feeling I have every year,” Shizue Takahashi told reporters at the station after paying tribute to her late husband.

“The health of some victims is deteriorating, and some families are also going through a tremendously difficult time,” she said, adding that the passage of time had not healed the pain suffered by victims’ families.

After years of legal proceedings, the prosecution of 13 Aum Shinrikyo members on death row for the attacks and other crimes finally concluded in January, clearing the way for their execution.

Last week, authorities began separating and transferring them to different detention facilities equipped with the infrastructure to carry out executions by hanging.

The transfers have prompted speculation that cult leader Shoko Asahara and the 12 of his followers on death row could soon be executed, though there has been no official indication.

Authorities usually announce executions after the fact, with no advance warning.

Takahashi said the timing of the transfers initially startled her, but stressed that the executions must proceed in due course.

“The death penalty came as the result of long trials, and it has entered the next phase,” she said.

“It is not at a phase where I can say or do anything about it. I feel that steps should be taken in accordance with the law,” she said.

Some experts, however, oppose the executions — with the exception of Asahara — saying authorities risk transforming the other 12 into martyrs that will help the cult’s successor groups recruit new members.