Asahara Sentenced to Death for 1995 Tokyo Gas Attack

Feb. 27 (Bloomberg) — Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, was sentenced to death on charges of organizing terrorist acts, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people.

The Tokyo district court found him guilty of 13 crimes, completing an eight-year trial. Shoji Ogawa, the presiding judge, sentenced him to death. Asahara, 48, led a group alleged to have killed 27 people, seven of them in the 1994 gassing in Matsumoto city, northwest of Tokyo.

Fusae Kobayashi, whose son was killed in Matsumoto, said the death sentence gives her little comfort. “I’ve been waiting for this day, but it’s not as if my life would change after this,” Kobayashi said in an interview on state-owned NHK Television.

Aum Shinrikyo’s activities prompted authorities in Japan to strengthen state powers, including adopting a law allowing police to wiretap phones in criminal investigations. The terrorist attacks in the U.S. in 2001 and the Japanese government’s decision to dispatch troops to Iraq have more recently fueled calls for tougher national security laws.

“More people want to be under state protection than ever before,” said sociologist Keiko Higuchi, a professor emeritus at Tokyo Kasei University, before today’s verdict. “We have compromised our privacy and civil liberties in the process.”

Aum Shinrikyo released sarin gas at several points on the Tokyo subway system 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.

Prosecutors called Asahara the most atrocious criminal in Japan’s history. Asahara plans to appeal his sentence, NHK said.

How Cult Apologists Defended AUM Shinrikyo

“One of the Americans, James Lewis, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases. He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum.”
– Quoted at AUM and cult apologists

“He was accompanied by two Santa Barbarans – J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, and James R. Lewis, director of the Association of World Academics for Religious Education–and Thomas Banigan of Anver Bioscience Design Inc. in Sierra Madre.”
– Quoted at AUM and cult apologists

“Another claim by the AUM apologists is that the trip to Japan was initiated and financed by AUM ‘dissidents,’ shocked by the acts of their leaders. The reality is that the trip was initiated by the NRM scholars involved, who contacted AUM to offer their help, and that there are no AUM dissidents.”
– Quoted at AUM and cult apologists

Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is the 12th Aum defendant to be given the death penalty by the district court. The 11 others have all appealed their rulings.

Trial Ends

The trial ended amid heightened security in Tokyo. Police deployed about 400 officers to patrol the subway and other locations to ensure safety.

A total of 4,658 people showed up to draw lotteries for the 38 seats available for the general public to attend the final hearing, court officials said.

Asahara, clad in a black sweater, at times hung his head and yawned during today’s court appearance. His black hair, once shoulder-length, had been trimmed. His beard, which used to be jet- black, is now graying. The court, located in the central Kasumigaseki district, was hushed during the morning session.

Judge Ogawa said Asahara’s crimes were the result of his imagination, according to a pool report for journalists. Ogawa found Asahara guilty of all the murder charges.

“After failing badly in the national election, Asahara turned to arming the cult and eventually came to desire to rule Japan and become a king,” Ogawa said, according to the report.

Asahara’s indiscriminate acts of terrorism “plunged Japan and the world into deep fear,” Ogawa said.

Japanese Laws

Japan passed a legal amendment in 1966 giving the authorities increased oversight of religious groups. The parliament passed additional laws in 1999 to regulate activities of Aum Shinrikyo and similar organizations.

The law allowing police to eavesdrop telephone calls and access e-mail 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.

Concern about security has again intensified in recent months after Japan decided to send troops to Iraq to help the country rebuild after the U.S.-led war that overthrew Saddam Hussein. The deployment, the first to a combat area since the end of World War II, has added to worries Japan may become a terrorist target.

Analysts, including Tokyo Kasei’s 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 versus civil liberties.

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.

Aum Theology

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.

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.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Bloomberg, USA
Feb. 27, 2004
Tak Kumakura, Paul Tighe

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 17, 2014 at 6:12 PM, Central European Time (CET)