Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) — Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, faces a possible death sentence when his trial ends today on charges of organizing terrorist acts, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people.
The ruling by the Tokyo district court will complete an eight- year trial. The 48-year old Asahara led a group alleged to have killed 27 people in terrorist incidents, seven of them in the 1994 gassing in Matsumoto, northwest of Tokyo.
Aum Shinrikyo’s activities prompted the authorities in Japan to strengthen state powers, including adopting a law allowing police to wiretap phones in criminal investigations. The government’s response to the cult spurred a debate on national security that has some lawmakers calling for a review of Japan’s constitution which renounces involvement in conflicts.
“More people want to be under state protection than ever before,” said sociologist Keiko Higuchi, a professor emeritus at Tokyo Kasei University. “We have compromised our privacy and civil liberties in the process.”
Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas at several points on the Tokyo subway system during the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995. More than 3,000 people needed treatment after the incident. The deaths in Matsumoto were also a result of the release of sarin, a colorless, odorless gas described as being more deadly than cyanide gas.
Calling Asahara the most atrocious criminal in Japan’s history, the authorities began a campaign for stronger law enforcement powers after his arrest.
A 1996 legal amendment gave the authorities increased oversight of religious groups. Additional laws were passed in 1999 to regulate activities of Aum Shinrikyo.
The law allowing police to eavesdrop telephone calls and access email messages was introduced in 2000. In 2002, Japan adopted a computerized ID system giving citizens 11-digit numbers linked to a database containing their personal information.
The debate on national security was ratcheted up this year after Japan dispatched its troops to Iraq to help the country rebuild after the war that overthrew Saddam Hussein. The deployment, the biggest since the end of World War II, has fueled concerns that Japan may become a target of terrorists.
Although some politicians have long called for the revision of the constitution, the threat of international terrorism has given added momentum to the discussion.
Analysts, including Higuchi, compare the Aum gas attack to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., where stepped up security measures after the incident stirred a similar debate on state powers verses civil liberties.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, may become the 12th Aum defendant to be given the death penalty by the district court. The 11 others have all appealed their rulings.
A total of 189 people, including Asahara, have been indicted so far. The cult, which was established in 1987, has more than 1,650 followers in Japan and 300 in Russia, according to a government report released last year.
Asahara, who is partially blind, studied acupuncture and traditional Chinese herbal medicine before he began to preach a type of esoteric Buddhism mixed with his own apocalyptic theology. Perhaps the most controversial part of his doctrine is an idea that murder may be justified under some circumstances and that it spiritually elevates both killers and the victims.
The group’s attacks “destroyed this myth among Japanese people that we all live in harmony, at peace with one another in this community,” said Tatsuo Inamasu, a professor of social psychology at Hosei University in Tokyo.
Aum Shinrikyo renamed itself Aleph in February 2000 in an effort to create a new image under the leadership of Fumihiro Joyu, Aum’s former spokesman, who completed a three-year prison sentence in 1999.
The Aleph Web site condemns the gas attack, saying the group deeply apologizes to the victims and their bereaved families.
“Considering what we have done in the past, I believe we have to reform the organization drastically,” Joyu says in a statement on the Web site.
The site also features advice columns in which the cult’s elders encourage visitors to send in questions about a variety of topics. The recent columns discuss love, premature baldness and how to successfully take college entrance exams.
Even with the effort to distance itself from Asahara, the organization is still under government surveillance. The authorities earlier this month raided 11 of the organization’s offices nationwide in the run up to today’s sentencing.
The probe has yielded videotapes and books of Asahara’s teachings, evidence that the group hasn’t completely parted ways with the guru, local news reports said.