While the execution of Aum Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara and the group’s former senior members may offer a degree of closure on a string of crimes that shocked the nation, it also creates an opportunity for further debate in Japanese society about the death penalty.
At a time when the global trend is toward abolishing capital punishment,the country’s death penalty system has sparked international criticism — especially over the secrecy surrounding its executions — and has prompted critics to push for its abolition.
Even so, Friday’s execution of the seven death row inmates including Asahara reflected the Justice Ministry’s sensitivity not only to the feelings of victims and their families but also a strong public resentment against him over the deadly crimes he perpetrated.
The 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 13 people, among a total of over 6,500 victims, was only one of numerous murders masterminded by Asahara. The sarin gas attack also shattered the country’s reputation for public safety.
With this Friday’s executions of cult members, the nation will now have to grapple with unanswered questions about the crimes — with no longer any chance of hearing accounts directly from Asahara or the six others.
Yuji Ogawara, who heads a lawyers’ group that is opposed to the death penalty at the Japan Federation of Bar Associations, disputes that the executions bring closure to Aum’s crimes.
“We should have heard more accounts from the people involved and deepened discussions in society to get to the bottom as to why such crimes related to religion happened,” Ogawara said.
As time passes, public memories of the crime may fade away. Victims, families and their supporters, as well as those involved in the legal system, believe it is necessary to come to terms with the crimes and draw lessons from them to avoid a similar incident happening again.
Even at his execution, little had been learned about Asahara.
At the time of his arrest, he was vocal. But he fell silent halfway through the proceedings of his trial, which started in 1996, and began exhibiting baffling behavior. In detention, he also refused to meet his family and lawyers from 2008 onward.
In January 2018, officials at the Tokyo Detention House told relatives that Asahara would not step outside his cell even if they tried to pull him out by the hand.
His family said he was mentally incompetent, making it impossible for him to be executed as stipulated in Japan’s law of criminal procedure. But the ministry has denied this claim.
The method by which the ministry judged him to be mentally competent is also one aspect of the case that remains under wraps.
Recounting how the doomsday cult attracted educated youths, Tadashi Moriyama, a Takushoku University professor, said he feels that “it was not fully revealed in trial or among researchers why many highly educated people, or those with high social status, were involved in the crimes.”
“With the execution, I feel that the opportunity to discover (why) has been lost,” Moriyama said.
Amnesty International, a human rights organization, criticized the country on Friday for executing Asahara and six of Aum’s former members, saying that capital punishment does not deliver justice for the victims of crimes committed by the doomsday cult.
“Justice demands accountability but also respect for everyone’s human rights. The death penalty can never deliver this as it is the ultimate denial of human rights,” Hiroka Shoji, East Asia researcher at Amnesty International, wrote in a statement.
The organization recorded four executions and three death sentences issued in 2017, and by the end of the year 123 people had seen their death sentences finalized by the courts.
The ministry said the number of people with finalized death sentences dropped to 117, one of whom is under retrial, after the executions of the seven men on Friday.
Even though the death penalty has been under fire by international rights groups, a majority of the public has shown support for it.
A 2014 government survey showed that 80.3 percent of Japanese people aged 20 or over favored capital punishment — down from a record 85.6 percent in the previous survey in 2009.
“The death penalty system is very much criticized by the international community and there are still issues involving those seeking retrial, or death sentences for those suspected to be mentally incompetent,” Ogawara said.
Against such a backdrop, he added that the latest executions must now pave the way for “broader discussions on whether to abolish or retain the death penalty.”
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