TOKYO, Apr 12 (IPS) – Just a few days after his father’s death sentence was upheld by the Tokyo High Court, the son of the Aum Supreme Truth cult founder filed a suit against his junior high school demanding compensation for refusing to allow him to attend school.
The son, whose name is being withheld, was an infant in 1995 when Shoko Asahara, now 50, led members of the Aum cult to gas the Tokyo Subway system with sarin. The attack left 12 people dead, and thousands injured. He was found guilty of murder charges in 1999.
Yet human rights lawyers and activists say the case filed by Asahara’s son is yet another example of how families of death row prisoners face rampant discrimination, abuse and are forced to live in shame for crimes committed by a family member.
“Denying a child, who was only an infant when Asahara was arrested 11 years ago, is a serious human rights violation,” Takeshi Matsui, the plaintiff’s lawyer told IPS. “We are filing a case against the school to ensure justice is respected in Japan.”
The son was bullied at his public primary school and forced to seek admission to a private school. Though he was initially granted entry, a few days before the entrance ceremony, school officials refused to admit him when they discovered his father’s identity, Matsui said.
In response, Kasukabe Kyoei Middle School, the private school, issued a statement saying it will comment on the case after school authorities have had time to thoroughly examine the suit.
Human rights specialists say the Aum family case is not unusual. “While Aum is responsible for terrible crimes, there are also many others who live in shame, suffer depression and even commit suicide because they cannot face the social ostracism in Japan after they are identified to be related to a criminal, especially when the crime involves the death sentence,” said Tomoya Uemura told IPS.
Uemura belongs to a citizens’ group that visits prisoners on death row in Japan. She is currently supporting two foreign prisoners facing the death penalty.
Few families visit their death row relatives for fear of being identified with them and being socially ostracized, she said. “We find them lonely and deeply depressed without being able to talk to anyone or express their fears,” she added.
Japan executed one prisoner in 2005. Asahara has run out of appeals, and by Japanese law, he could be sent to the gallows at any time.
Indeed, this week, the Tokyo Bar Association released a survey of 79 inmates that reveals death row prisoners live in solitary confinement in cells with closed windows.
Only one in four prisoners has visitors, including relatives and lawyers, according to the survey. Seventy percent surveyed said they want to be able to see the sky and wished to talk to other inmates.
A new bill is pending in the Diet to ease restrictions death row prisoners. The bill would allow, for example, friends to visit when family members cannot.
According to crime expert, Koichi Kikuta, former professor of criminology at Meiji University and a lawyer, families of criminals in Japan are seen as responsible as the person who committed the crime itself.
This is not the first time one of Asahara’s children has fought to maintain a relatively normal life.
Two years ago, the third daughter of Asahara, who suffers bouts of depression and nightmares, fought and won against a university that had refused her admission on the grounds that “she would disturb the educational environment of our school even if she is not directly responsible.”
“It is absolutely wrong for a child to be held responsible for something he has nothing to do with. This case is an example of the Japanese social system that believes criminals and their families have no human rights,” he said.
Kikuta, who lectures and teaches human rights across Japan, said the Aum trial is a potent test case for the country’s poor human rights record given the heavy crimes attached to the cult and the founder.
“The crime pits individual rights of a prisoner against Japanese social customs where the family is expected to take the blame and punishment is favoured as the right remedy,” he said.
Victims of the AUM sarin attack and their families have gained much sympathy among the public with most media reports laying the blame squarely on Asahara for the sarin attack before the actual verdict.
They have lobbied hard for the death penalty for Asahara and pressure has been high for a quick resolution to the trial, which concluded in March.
Desperate for their father to have a fair trail, Asahara’s two oldest daughters appointed Matsui in 2003 after his court-appointed lawyers withdrew saying they could not communicate with their client.
In a recent interview, the daughters, both of whom are in their twenties, told IPS about their ordeal that began after the arrest of their parents 1996.
“We were little children and my youngest brother just a few months old,” said the elder daughter who spoke on condition of anonymity. The family now lives scattered, either alone or in the homes of a few supporters, she said.
“We are so afraid of being identified, because we face constant harassment from the public. We cannot rent apartments, find employment or go to school when we are discovered to be the children of Asahara,” she said. “Our father … must tell the world why, if he was involved, the sarin attack occurred. At this stage we know nothing of the facts from him,” she said.
Misaki Yanagishita, an expert on the death penalty at Amnesty International’s Japan office, said that a fair trial for Asahara is imperative for his children to live normal lives in Japan, if ever that is possible given the heinous crimes associated with Aum.