TOKYO (AP) – It took nearly eight years for Japan’s courts to convict and hand down a death sentence against former cult guru Shoko Asahara for the 1995 Tokyo nerve gas attack. With the appeal promised by his lawyers, it could take just as many years to execute him.
The ex-leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult was sentenced Friday to hang for masterminding a crime spree that culminated in the subway assault, killed 27 people and brought modern terrorism to one of the world’s safest countries.
Lawyers for the former guru said they would appeal, a step that could take another decade to get through Japan’s understaffed, snail-paced criminal justice system.
The prospect of another lengthy court battle – the trial began in April 1996 – embittered families of the cult’s many victims.
“I am very angry that the trial dragged on for so long, that Asahara virtually ignored the trial, showing no interest in the proceedings, and treated it as though it was none of his business,” said Saburo Yasumoto, whose daughter died in a nerve gas attack on the central Japanese city of Matsumoto in 1994 that killed seven people.
Asahara’s former disciples had already testified to his puppet-master role in their most terrifying crimes: the subway attack that killed 12 and sickened thousands, the Matsumoto attack, the killing of an anti-cult lawyer and his family and the cult’s ambitious program to stockpile conventional and chemical weapons.
Defence lawyers argued that prosecutors had not conclusively proved the cult’s killers were working on Asahara’s orders.
“It’s absolutely unclear how he was supposedly manipulating his followers,” said one of his attorneys, Koji Mishima.
Presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa took hours Friday to detail the 13 counts against Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.
“Considering the nature of his crimes … the defendant’s criminal responsibility is extremely heavy,” Ogawa said. “We have no other choice but sentence the defendant to death.”
Asahara, 48, stood in silence as the sentence was read. He had entered the courtroom grinning in the morning and made bizarre faces during the session, but said nothing. He became the 12th former Aum member sentenced to death; none has been executed.
Asahara’s trial forced Japan to revisit the subway attack, which shattered the nation’s self-image as a low-crime haven.
Terrorism experts point to Aum’s campaign to produce sophisticated weapons of mass destruction as an early warning of how groups – rather than governments – could use money and technology to hold civilian populations hostage.
“Aum relished in making military-grade chemical agents,” said John Parachini, a Washington-based policy analyst with the Rand Corporation who has studied the cult.
The verdict comes amid fears of terrorism in Japan, linked to its sending troops for a humanitarian mission in Iraq. The country went on heightened alert last week, beefing up security at airports and other public places. Hundreds of police were on duty at the court Friday.
At its height, Aum claimed 10,000 followers in Japan and 30,000 in Russia. The guru used a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and yoga to entice his devotees, who engaged in chilling rituals such as drinking his blood and bathwater.
The subway gassing was Aum’s most horrific crime. Five cult members pierced bags of sarin, originally developed by the Nazis, on separate trains as they converged in Tokyo’s government district as a pre-emptive strike against police.
The attack sent the country into a panic as sickened, bleeding passengers stumbled from subway stations.
Survivors still suffer from headaches, breathing troubles and dizziness. The cult was ordered in separate court proceedings to pay about $45 million Cdn in damages to the victims.
The trial was lengthened by Japan’s chronic shortage of lawyers and judges, the complexity of the case and a six-month delay caused by Asahara’s firing of his first attorney.
Even without an appeal, Japan’s prison system often takes years to execute death row inmates. Prisoners are given little or no notice of the day they will be executed, and families and lawyers find out about the hangings after the fact.
Police say the cult’s remnants, renamed Aleph in 2000, are showing signs of greater allegiance to Asahara. Agents this month raided the offices of the group, which released a statement after the verdict apologizing to the families of the victims.