Japan reacted with relief yesterday as the leader of the cult that released sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway in 1995, was sentenced to hang for multiple charges of murder.
They included the 12 Tokyo commuters who died in the subway attack in 1995, seven other victims of an earlier sarin attack in a small mountain city the previous year, and the family of a lawyer who had been acting against the cult.
“His crimes did not stop at the murder of specific individuals but expanded into indiscriminate acts of terrorism,” Judge Shoji Ogawa said at Tokyo District Court.”These actions plunged Japan and the world into deep fear.”
As Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, stood facing the bench, Judge Ogawa said: “I sentence the defendant to death.”
The court rejected the defence argument that the Asahara knew nothing of the murders which were carried out by his followers. The verdict is the 12th sentence of death to be delivered in a case involving former Aum members.
Mr Asahara’s defence team immediately announced that he would appeal against the verdict.
It might be another ten years before all legal measures are exhausted, and another seven before the sentence is carried out. But, in a country with a conviction rate of more than 99 per cent for serious crimes, the final result is in little doubt.
“I was hoping for this,” said Shizue Takahashi, the husband of a Tokyo station master who died after removing containers of sarin from one of the targeted trains.
“This morning I visited the grave of my husband, and I felt as if he was with me as I heard the verdict. It is natural that he should be sentenced to death.”
News of the verdict was flashed up on giant video screens at crossroads across the country, and passers-by immediately began photographing the historic moment with their mobile phones and sending it to friends by e-mail.
“I’m sending this image to all my family,” said Hiromi Osako, a shop assistant in the Ginza district.
“This is a very important day. He deserves to die, because he made everyone so scared.”
More than 4,600 people queued for the 38 public seats in court, but those who were hoping to hear from 48-year old Mr Asahara were disappointed.
He has hardly spoken throughout the seven and half year trial, and today he was as impassive as the sentence was read out.
He smiled as he entered the courtroom, dressed in a grey sweater, and his mouth twitched silently throughout the proceedings.
But Judge Ogawa’s judgment spelt out the staggeringly ambitious motives behind Aum’s crimes, which gathered pace after a disastrous attempt to win seats in a general election.
“After failing badly in the election, he started arming the cult and eventually had the desireto rule Japan and become a king,” the judge said.
“He tried to arm [the cult] with over 1,000 automatic rifles and take control of Tokyo. Whoever stood in the way, regardless of whether inside or outside the cult, he murdered them.”
Unlike the victims of the September 11 attacks, for example, the survivors and bereaved families of the sarin attacks have received no compensation from their own government.
There is bitter anger against the Japanese police who ignored repeated and obvious indications that the cult was up to no good long before the 1995 subway attack.
“I believe that the police are as heavily responsible as Aum, which carried out the attack,” said Mrs Takahashi, who leads an association of victims and family members.”I want to sue the national government for what happened.”