Award stems from 1994 attack
TOKYO — A Tokyo court yesterday ordered apocalyptic cult guru Shoko Asahara and two of his top followers to pay nearly $7.5 million in damages to victims of last year’s nerve gas attack on the city’s subways.
It is unlikely the money will ever be paid because the Aum Shinri Kyo cult already has been declared bankrupt and ordered to disband. Regardless, survivors of the attack consider the ruling a legal victory that could set a precedent for other civil suits against the cult.
“I have waited for this day, though it won’t bring my daughter back,” said Bunjiro Iwata, father of one of the victims.
The morning rush-hour attack March 20 on Tokyo’s showcase subway system killed 12 people, sickened thousands of others and shocked a nation accustomed to taking public safety for granted.
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Criminal charges are still pending against Asahara and many other top cult members, but final verdicts could take years. If convicted of murder, they could be hanged.
Two of Asahara’s top disciples, Masami Tsuchiya and Ikuo Hayashi, were also named in the ruling.
The three accused men did not offer a defense nor did they appear at any of the court sessions over the past several months. The court thus awarded the full amount sought by the 38 victims — $7.45 million, an unusually high amount by Japanese standards.
Lawyers for the victims stressed that although Asahara lived a flamboyant, luxurious life as head of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, it is unlikely he will be able to pay the compensation.
“Realistically, these men have virtually no assets,” said chief lawyer Kenji Utsunomiya. Many of Aum’s former assets have been sold or transferred to individual ownership.
“This is only a victory on paper,” said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband was killed in the attack. “We have yet to receive an apology. It is unforgivable that the defendants didn’t even come to this court.”
The chief prosecutor said the court has yet to rule on damage suits filed against 12 other cult leaders — three of whom vanished after the attack — and the cult itself.
The subway attack was the climax in a series of increasingly violent crimes blamed on Asahara and his neo-Buddhist cult, which at its peak said it had 40,000 followers in Japan, Russia and several other countries.
The bearded, partially blind guru has refused to offer a plea in his criminal trial, where he is accused of a dozen other murders. They include the killings of an anti-Aum lawyer, his family and a cult member at Aum’s main commune on the base of Mount Fuji.