Court trials on a series of deadly crimes committed by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, including the March 1995 sarin gas attack on subway trains in Tokyo, have effectively been wrapped up — nearly 23 years after the police cracked down on the doomsday cult accused of the crimes that killed 29 people and injured more than 6,000 others. Despite the massive amount of time spent in courtrooms and convictions that led to 13 Aum members being put on death row, however, much about the cult’s unprecedented crimes remains a mystery — such as the exact motives behind the subway gas attack and how and why the Aum followers, including highly educated youths with promising career prospects, had been drawn to the cult and came to commit the heinous crimes upon the orders of its founder and guru, Shoko Asahara.
The Aum trials exposed the limitations of the nation’s criminal justice system. The end of the marathon trial process should provide an opportunity to review whether reforms introduced to the court trial system in an effort to fix problems highlighted by the trials are really sufficient to find answers to the kind of questions raised by the Aum crimes.
A recent decision by the Supreme Court to turn down the appeal by Katsuya Takahashi, who had been sentenced to life on a murder charge in connection with the 1995 subway gassing attack, wrapped up the series of trials of roughly 190 Aum Shinrikyo members indicted for a spate of the cult’s crimes, which also included a fatal sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in June 1994 and the 1989 murders of a lawyer campaigning against the cult and his family. Death sentences have been finalized for 13 Aum members, including Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, along with life terms given to five other cultists.
While trials on Aum cultists initially ended in 2011, they resumed after Takahashi and two others on the wanted list were arrested the following year after being on the run for 17 years. Executions of death row inmates do not take place while trials on their accomplices are ongoing because they may be called on to testify in court in those cases. The conclusion of Takahashi’s trial will clear this hurdle to the execution of the Aum cultists on death row, including Asahara, whose sentence as the mastermind of the crimes was finalized in 2006.
Due to complexity of the background to each of the crimes and the large number of people involved, the trial of the accused Aum cultists became protracted as the proceedings focused on verifying a vast amount of facts related to the commission of the crimes, including minute details. The district court proceedings in Asahara’s trial, which began in April 1996, took seven years and 10 months before the death sentence was handed down. In the courtroom, however, Asahara either repeated mostly incoherent remarks — or in the latter part of the proceedings, simply clammed up. He never addressed core questions about the crimes he stood accused of, including his motives behind them. His death sentence was finalized two years later after his defense counsel failed to submit in time relevant documents for appealing his conviction.
The problems exposed in the trials of the Aum cultists’ crimes, including criticism voiced by victims of the crimes that the lawyers for the cultists were trying to delay the proceedings through meticulous questioning about details, have led to the introduction of reforms of the court trial system. A law was enacted to hasten the criminal trial process — with a target of concluding district court proceeding within two years — and pre-trial arrangement proceedings were initiated to narrow down the issues to be contested in court. In 2008, a system was launched to allow the participation of crime victims in the trial proceedings, and the following year the current lay judge system, in which randomly chosen citizens sit alongside professional judges in the trials of serious crimes such as murder, was launched. But whether these reforms would have made a difference in shedding light on many of the fundamental questions behind the Aum’s crimes remains unclear.
The Aum trials did not provide clear answers to why so many youths with their whole lives ahead of them were drawn to Asahara’s cult and eventually were willing participants in heinous crimes. Aum Shinrikyo’s successor groups — which the Public Security Intelligence Agency deems as under the continuing influence of Asahara and his teachings — reportedly claim a total of about 1,650 followers in Japan (as well as some 460 adherents in Russia), and are reportedly recruiting new young members who have no firsthand knowledge of Aum’s crimes. The conclusion of the criminal trials of Aum Shinrikyo members does not mean all the questions regarding the cult and its crimes have been answered.