AUM SHINRIKYO – THE ‘SUPREME TRUTH’ SECT

Some strange malaise, some bitter aftertaste lingers on. We crane our necks and look around, as if to ask: where did all that come from? … We will get nowhere as long as [we] continue to disown the Aum phenomenon as something completely other, an alien presence viewed through binoculars on the far shore.

HARUKI MURAKAMI, from an article in the Guardian by Richard Lloyd Parry, March 18, 2005

The morning of March 20, 1995 began much like any other morning of any other day in Tokyo, Japan. People all over the city were rising, having breakfast, then heading off to the subway to get to work. But, unlike any other day, packages had been placed on five different trains; packages which contained plastic bags filled with a lethal chemical agent. Once laid on the floor each parcel was punctured by an umbrella tip, which allowed the chemical inside – a lethal nerve gas called sarin – to be released. It then spread throughout the carriages. What Tokyo was experiencing was a co-ordinated terrorist attack, one that was carried out by a sinister, secretive cult named Aum Shinrikyo. In fact, this was a double tragedy for Japan, for only nine weeks earlier the city of Kobe had suffered a massive earthquake in which 6,000 people died. The Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami described the two events like, ‘the back and front of one massive explosion … these twin catastrophes will remain embedded in our psyche as two milestones in our life as a people.’1

The sarin-gas attack not only brought about a serious inquiry into the very heart of the Japanese state, it also spelt the beginning of the type of global terrorism best illustrated by the events of September 11, 2001, when two aeroplanes were deliberately flown into the Twin Towers in New York. But who was behind the events in Japan, in which thousands of people were injured and twelve people died? And what was the motive for causing havoc on such a large scale?

The self-proclaimed leader of Aum Shinrikyo was a man who called himself Shoko Asahara, although this wasn’t his real name. His actual name was Chizuo Matsumoto, and he was born in the provincial city of Kumamoto on March 2, 1955 to impoverished parents, his father earning a living as a tatami-mat maker. Matsumoto was partially blind from birth, a disability which meant he was sent to a special government-run boarding school for the blind. Unlike the other children, however, he could see out of one eye, and it is said Matsumoto took advantage of this situation to bully and manipulate the other children into doing his bidding. Money was his main motivation; he rarely, if ever, helped out his blind schoolmates without first extracting payment from them. Not everything went his way though, for several times he tried to become president of the student body, but was unsuccessful on each occasion due to his lack of popularity.

Upon graduating, the young Matsumoto spent several years trying to gain entrance to Tokyo University. To attend this establishment was almost a pre-requisite for anyone wishing to enter Japan’s governing elite, an ambition that Matsumoto had harbored since he was a child. Whether through bad luck or lack of application, Matsumoto failed to realize his dream – a setback that played bitterly on the young man’s mind. Returning to his home town of Kumamoto, he took up a job in a massage parlor. It was hardly an auspicious beginning for an ambitious youngster, but at the age of twenty-three, determined to better himself, he returned to Tokyo. Here he set up the Matsumoto acupuncture clinic and married a nineteen-year-old college student called Tomoko, with whom he was to have six children. Shortly after setting up business in Tokyo, however, Matsumoto was arrested for the first time, for attempting to sell fake remedies to an unsuspecting public. He had apparently concocted a potion out of orange peel soaked in alcohol, that he called ‘Almighty Medicine’ and which he claimed was a traditional Chinese remedy for treating all types of illness. Together with a three-month course of acupuncture and yoga, Almighty Medicine was sold for $7,000 a pop.

After his arrest and a fine of $1,000, Matsumoto decided, during the 1980s, to travel to India, where he was inspired to take further yoga classes. He became fascinated by the idea of spiritual enlightenment, which certain types of yoga and meditation are said to promote. Suddenly Matsumoto knew what he wanted to do; he would return to Japan, set up his own yoga center, and encourage members not only to study a new type of faith, but also to regard him as this new faith’s spiritual leader.

By 1987, Matsumoto’s ambitions were realized; he named his group Aum Shinrikyo Matsumoto and it was at this time that he adopted the name Shoku Asahara. Initiates to the cult claimed that their leader had taught them not only spiritual enlightenment based on an eclectic mix of Buddhism, Hinduism, Shamanism, the writings of Nostradamus, apocalyptic Christianity and New Age beliefs, but also supernatural powers such as how to levitate and the art of telepathy. To most people these claims might seem ludicrous, but, disturbingly, within two years of its conception in 1989, Aum Shinrikyo had so many converts that the Japanese government was forced to grant it legal status as a religion (a move which also granted Asahara huge tax concessions). Indeed, at the height of Aum Shinrikyo’s powers, in the mid-1990s, membership in Japan swelled to well over 10,000, with over 30,000 admirers and followers around the world, including a large group in Russia.

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Shoko Asahara, a partially sighted academic failure and con artist, established a legal religion with himself as its head. He sold his beard clippings and bath water to followers, telling them they had curative or magic powers.

As the cult grew, so Asahara became increasingly confident. Anything he said was taken as truth. His followers didn’t balk even when it came to some of the more bizarre rituals, such as the drinking of Asahara’s blood, which they were informed had magical properties. At other times followers were encouraged to buy Asahara’s bath water – which was also said to have miraculous powers. Clippings from Asahara’s beard were sold with instructions to boil them in water and afterwards ingest the solution. Anything Asahara said was believed. There appeared to be no stopping either the cult or its leader – and naturally with such great power, also came great wealth. In March, 1995, one of Aum Shinrikyo’s leading members estimated the cult’s net worth as being in the region of $1.5 billion.

Initially, when Shoku Asahara first began teaching yoga, he had shied away from charging his pupils any money or, if they did pay, it was simply by way of a token donation. But, with the legalization of Aum Shinrikyo as a religion, all this was to change. Suddenly donations weren’t just welcomed, they were expected. The cult also set up a huge merchandising operation (much as a large corporation might) for the sale of videos, books, magazines and other paraphernalia. Asahara wrote several books himself, a few of the most popular being Secrets of Developing Your Spiritual Powers (which promised, among other things, to teach trainees how to see into the future and how to read minds), Beyond Life and Death and Mahayana Sutra and Initiation. Seminars and training courses were also popular and easy ways to rake in money, with tens of thousands of dollars being charged for each session. Aum Shinrikyo also diversified into running several ‘outside’ businesses, such as a computer manufacturing company, which imported parts from Taiwan to be assembled in a cult-run factory back in Japan, with the end products sold in Aum Shinrikyo shops in the capital. It has also been suggested by Kyle B. Olson, in an article entitled ‘Aum Shinrikyo: Once and Future Threat?’, that another method by which the cult raked in money was via the practice of ‘green mail’ which in effect meant that Asahara would threaten to set up a cult operation in any number of cities – unless the local government paid him not to do so. The ruse worked over and over again, earning Aum Shinrikyo hundreds of thousands of dollars.

With such great wealth at his disposal, it was only a matter of time before Asahara decided to plough some of the money into property. In 1988 he decided that what his cult needed was a temple and compound, within which his followers could live.

Mount Fuji is without doubt one of Japan’s most easily recognizable landmarks. An inspiration to artists over the centuries, it has come to symbolize both the beauty and mystery of the country as a whole. Sadly, in 1988, it received a far less noble addition to its grandeur. At the foot of the mountain Aum Shinrikyo, having bought a plot of land, erected a series of bunker-like buildings, which were to serve as its headquarters. Huge dormitories were built, in which the faithful could sleep upon the bare wooden floors. A giant refectory was also erected – here followers (if they were lucky) were served one meal a day consisting of steamed vegetables and rice. With such basic living conditions, and given that they were required to donate huge amounts of money to the cult, it might seem surprising that so many men and women were willing to join this organization. But the numbers kept on growing, with many young professionals among the new recruits. Hideo Murai was one such individual. An exceptionally talented young man who had trained as an astrophysicist, after meeting Asahara he turned his back on his former life and instead joined Aum Shinrikyo. Another member was Seiichi Endo, a genetic engineer with a Ph.D in molecular biology. Many others followed. But, although on the surface the cult appeared to be fulfilling all these people’s expectations, underneath cracks were beginning to appear, and several disillusioned followers were now starting to look for a way out.

The disillusionment (or even fear) felt by some newcomers to the sect stemmed in part from the weird, masochistic initiation ceremonies that a large number of them endured, the most famous of which involved boiling water. Candidates would be made to submerse themselves in a tub of boiling water until their skin peeled away, after which they would be forced to meditate night and day, while all the time listening to a tape of Shoku Asahara chanting mantras. Food and sleep were also used as weapons, with initiates receiving very little of either, a well-known cult technique used to lower people’s resistance, making it easier to brainwash them. Candidates were also forced to take hallucinogenic drugs, either to subdue them or to help incite them to commit criminal acts. Refusal to do any of the above would result in punishments that included several weeks of hard labor.

Shuji Taguchi had joined Aum Shinrikyo with every intention of making a lifelong commitment to the cult. He was a model member of the group, with a deep-rooted conviction that Asahara was little less than a god. His faith was unshakable – until, that is, one of his closest friends asked permission to leave the cult. Asahara informed everyone that this man must be mentally unstable and needed specialist treatment. The type of assistance he received was closer to torture than counseling – for the man was hung upside-down and then dropped repeatedly into a container of ice-cold water. Eventually, having been submersed so many times that his heart could no longer bear the strain, the man died.

Taguchi was shocked by his friend’s death and, understandably, began talking to other Aum Shinrikyo members about his concerns. It was the last they would ever see of him. Angered by what he saw as one of his disciples’ insubordination, Asahara had Taguchi executed. His body was then burned. A few weeks later, concerned about their son, his parents tried to contact the compound, only to be told he was unavailable. Further attempts to get in touch with Taguchi also failed to yield results, after which the police were contacted, but, even though they had received several requests from other worried parents concerning their ‘lost’ children, the police, too, drew a blank. It wasn’t until a young lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, heard about the cult and the anguish of those parents whose children had joined, that questions began to be asked and alarm bells were sounded.

Initially, Sakamoto, who was married with one small child, was employed by one family to demand the release of their under-age daughter from the cult’s clutches. Word quickly spread, however, and soon Sakamoto was working on behalf of twenty-three families, all seeking to help their children escape. Firstly the young lawyer organized the individual complainants into one single group, named the Society of Aum Supreme Truth Victims. Only then did he approach the cult with a request to allow the parents proper access to their offspring. This offensive brought him into contact with one of the cult’s lawyers, Yoshinobu Aoyama, who had joined the cult in 1988 after being credited as one of the youngest students ever to pass the bar exams at the renowned Kyoto Law School. Aoyama at first tried to placate Sakamoto by allowing one set of parents access to their child, but Sakamoto was having none of this and demanded the release of all the named youngsters. In addition, Sakamoto surprised Aoyama by informing him that he was also acting on behalf of a cult member who had purchased some of Asahara’s ‘miracle drug’ but who had received none of the benefits that the cult claimed would occur upon ingestion of the liquid.

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Aum Shinrikyo’s chief scientist Hideo Murai (left) and spokesman Fumihiro Joyu leave a press conference at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan in Tokyo, after having claimed that chemical stockpiles found by police on the cult’s premises were to ensure Aum’s survival when the world ended.

Very soon, given the nature of Sakamoto’s enquiries and his persistent hectoring of Aum Shinrikyo, the media became involved, interviewing the lawyer who once again accused the cult of holding members against their will. Asahara was furious and immediately mounted an assault – initially handing out leaflets in Sakamoto’s home district, which discredited the lawyer and accused him of all manner of indecencies. When that failed to have an effect, Sakamoto began receiving threatening calls at home and at work until, on November 3, 1989, Asahara upped the stakes and sent three of his henchmen (Hideo Murai, by then the cult’s chief scientist, Satoro Hashimoto, a martial arts expert, and Dr. Nakagawa) to Sakamoto’s home. The plan was for the three men to wait outside Sakamoto’s house until his return from work, then kidnap and kill him. But the plan didn’t work because November 3 was a public holiday, and Sakamoto was already at home with his wife and child. In the middle of the night, the three men broke in to Sakamoto’s house and, with chilling efficiency, killed not only Sakamoto but also his wife (Satoko) and their baby son (Tatsuhiko). They wrapped the bodies up in old sheets to take them back to Aum Shinrikyo headquarters. Later, each body was loaded into a tin drum and driven out into the countryside. All three corpses were then dumped in separate locations.

The disappearance of an entire family immediately aroused concern and suspicion. Sakamoto’s mother, on discovering her son’s home empty, called the police, but although they found an Aum Shinrikyo badge on the premises, they seemed unable or unwilling to investigate further. Even when the media took up the cause and stated a link between the family’s disappearance and the cult, the police did nothing and soon not even the media were interested in the case.

Safe in the knowledge that he had ordered the execution of an entire family without being discovered, Shoku Asahara now decided to attempt to have a handful of his disciples elected to parliament. It was a bold step, but one that Asahara felt was necessary to achieve his dreams of ultimate power. Of course, as with almost everything Asahara was involved in, his approach to canvassing votes involved a certain level of violence. Opposition party workers were intimidated, they had their phones tapped and threats were made against their families. Asahara fielded twenty-five candidates and threw millions of dollars into his campaign … but not one of the twenty-five succeeded in being elected. It was a terrible blow to Asahara, whose thoughts immediately turned to retaliation against the country. He now began speaking of a coming Armageddon. Suddenly, Shoku Asahara’s rhetoric included plans to raise an army to fight against all those opposed to his plans. More terrifying still, Asahara charged his chief scientist, Hideo Murai, with the task of creating a means of countrywide devastation. Murai spent months developing different types of chemical weapons, including one toxin best known as Clostridium Botulinum.

As Murai slaved away trying to concoct these poisons, Asahara decided to expand his empire even further. In 1992, the sect set its sights on Russia. Arriving in Moscow in March, Aum Shinrikyo was a huge success, attracting thousands of Russians to its cause within only a few months. Even government officials joined the cult’s ranks, and soon Asahara had made important contacts not only within the Russian security council, but also within the Soviet scientific community. Aum Shinrikyo now began purchasing ex-Soviet military weapons, enough to form its own army. Indeed, Asahara’s plans for Armageddon were growing ever closer to fruition, with biological warfare the preferred weapon of choice. The conventional firearms, supplied by the Russians, were also to be used. By this time Hideo Murai had made huge inroads into developing chemical weaponry, by introducing a nerve gas into Aum Shinrikyo’s arsenal – one that was first invented by the Nazis: sarin.

Shoku Asahara’s goal was the complete militarization of Aum Shinrikyo. Every member had to receive rigorous training, after which an elite few were chosen to lead separate commando units. Asahara also built a huge factory at his compound, known to cult members as ‘The Supreme Science Institute’, to manufacture conventional weaponry so that every man and woman could enter battle fully armed. It was only a matter of time before Asahara decided to test out his strength, and the upcoming marriage of Japan’s Prince Naruhito appeared to be the ideal opportunity – a date on which the country’s leading dignitaries would all be gathered in one spot. Asahara ordered his men to organize the spraying of the botulism toxin throughout Tokyo, with the intention of causing a major epidemic. Although the operation went ahead, the toxin failed to take effect, and not one person was struck down or died. Aum Shinrikyo needed another, more effective weapon of mass destruction – and in late 1993 the deadly anthrax virus was deployed. The results of this second assault were as disappointing as those of the first. Releasing the toxin from the roof of one of his many buildings, Asahara stood back and waited for citizens to start dropping like flies. Instead, local residents complained of stomach pains and headaches, but no one died. So, why hadn’t the deadly anthrax spray worked? According to the magazine, the New Scientist, the cult had produced the toxin in liquid form as opposed to powder which is by far the more effective killer. Furthermore, the cults’s scientists had sourced their anthrax from a veterinary strain of the bacteria, which was far less capable of causing disease. It was at this point that Aum Shinrikyo focused all its attention on one chemical weapon – sarin gas. The substance had first been discovered by the Germans in 1936 while investigating organophosphates, and it was afterwards manufactured by the Nazis, though ultimately it was never used by them as a battlefield weapon. Asahara ordered that an entire building within the Mount Fuji complex be given over to the production of this new gas, stating that he required a minimum seventy tons of the poison – enough to kill not only every man, woman and child on the planet, but also every living creature.

The toxin worked in a particularly vicious way. First the victim’s nasal passages would begin to run, after which they would experience an acute tightening of the chest, violent body spasms (accompanied by vomiting), loss of bowel control and afterwards death. It was not a pleasant way to die; but sarin was the perfect weapon for a cult intending to inflict a doomsday scenario on the world.

Despite sarin gas’s potentially devastating effects, the initial tests were conducted. At one point, in poor safety conditions the sects’s head of security was splashed with the toxin, and only just escaped death after a quick-thinking scientist injected him with an antidote. Nevertheless, the cult was not discouraged from using its latest weapon, and in yet another attempt to test its effectiveness, Shoku Asahara, chose as his first victims three district court judges, who were all engaged in a lawsuit against Aum Shinrikyo.

On June 27,1994, two trucks set out from the cult’s compound loaded with sarin gas – but in an episode demonstrating an almost comic ineptitude, a combination of bad timekeeping and hideous traffic jams meant that by the time the vehicles arrived at the courthouse, the judges had gone home. Determined that all their efforts would not go to waste, Asahara ordered that the gas be released in a nearby residential area. His commands were swiftly executed and, although a change in wind direction caused the gas to be blown in the opposite direction to that intended, seven people lost their lives and more than 150 were admitted to hospital suffering from acute stomach pains and shortness of breath.

The incident was reported widely on TV and the police were called in to mount a thorough inquiry. Despite all the official efforts, however, Aum Shinrikyo miraculously escaped even a mention in connection with the attack.

Shoku Asahara must have thought himself invincible. After all, he had not only created his own fully-equipped army, but he had also produced his own chemical weapons and tested them successfully. It was, by the standards of any deranged criminal despot, a major achievement.

There was now, however, mounting pressure from several cult members’ families to launch an inquiry into the goings-on within Aum Shinrikyo. For an ordinary cult member to leave the compound was well-nigh impossible, but one elderly woman (who had donated her life savings to Aum Shinrikyo, only to become increasingly suspicious of the group’s agenda), did just this, escaping the compound and going into hiding. Asahara ordered her return and sent several squads to hunt her down, all of whom failed in their task. Instead, they kidnapped her sixty-eight-year-old brother, Kiyoshi Kariya, who for weeks after her disappearance had been plagued by phone calls demanding her return. Fearing for his life, Kiyoshi left a note saying that if anything happened to him then those responsible would be Aum Shinrikyo.

Kiyoshi was taken back to the cult’s headquarters where he was bound and beaten. He was given drugs in the hope that, under their influence, his tongue would loosen and he would reveal his sister’s location. Eventually, Kiyoshi fell into a coma and died. His body was quickly burned and his remains dumped outside the compound in a nearby lake. But Kiyhoshi was now about to avenge his own murder from beyond the grave. The note that he had left behind, identifying Aum Shinrikyo as his abductors, fell into the hands of the police. At last they had the evidence they needed to take action against the group and began to make preparations to mount a surprise raid on the cult’s headquarters. Asahara knew nothing about the planned police attack. Instead of bolstering his defences, he was concentrating on his own plans to unleash sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system during the early morning rush, hoping to cause the death of hundreds, if not thousands of citizens.

On March 20, 1995 at 8.00 a.m., a group of carefully hand-picked Aum Shinrikyo members (Kenichi Hirose, Yasuo Hayashi, Masato Yokoyama, Dr. Ikuo Hayashi and Toru Toyoda) stepped on to a variety of trains, all of which were timetabled to converge at Kasumigaseki station. Each member was carrying a small, toxic-resistant plastic bag filled to the brim with deadly sarin, along with specially adapted umbrellas with spiked ends. As each train neared its final destination, all five cult members placed their packages on the floor of their respective carriages and cut them open with their umbrella tips. Immediately sarin fumes began spreading through the trains. Those nearest the packages were coughing and wheezing within seconds of the gas being released. By the time the different trains pulled into Kasumigaseki, those passengers who were still able to were running for the exits, while the less fortunate lay dead and dying all over the platforms. Subway staff and police did all they could to help, but it was an impossible task. Twelve people died almost immediately and over 5,500 others were also affected by the attack, some of whom suffered horrific injuries. In the meantime, the perpetrators escaped and returned to the Aum Shinrikyo compound, where Asahara congratulated them and told them to go into hiding. The attack had been a huge success, but now it was time to lay low.

Asahara also went into hiding. His Rolls Royce was seen leaving the compound shortly after the subway attack. In the early hours of March 22, 1995, the police finally mounted a 1,000-man raid on the cult’s headquarters.

There were few, if any, surprises inside. Officers soon located bags of chemicals, all of which were taken away for forensic analysis, as well as countless pieces of equipment used for the chemicals’ manufacture. Hundreds of weapons were discovered as well as torture chambers and cells – several of which still contained prisoners. Yet, despite all the evidence that police confiscated from the compound, including the numerous chemicals, they didn’t make one single arrest in connection with the sarin-gas attack on the Tokyo subway. Asahara was in his element. He immediately released a video, stating that not only was Aum Shinrikyo not responsible for the carnage, but that the attack had been staged by the US military in an attempt to slur the cult. No one was convinced by his claims and within hours of the video’s release, Asahara, together with his most trusted lieutenants, was put on Japan’s ‘Most Wanted’ list. There now ensued further violence, this time directed straight at the authorities. Takaji Kunimatsu, the chief of the national police federation, was attacked by four gunmen and shot four times. Miraculously, he survived, but only hours after the hit, a message arrived at a Japanese television station stating that if the police didn’t back off from their investigation into the cult, then many more officers would die. The threat failed to impress anyone.

By April the police had begun arresting some of Aum Shinrikyo’s major players including Dr. Ikuo Hayashi and one of its hitmen, Tomomitsu Niimi. Both were charged with imprisoning people against their will. But the police’s main target, Shoku Asahara, was still at large, and still producing press releases. One of them threatened that, on April 15, 1995, a disaster would befall Japan on an even larger scale than the Kobe earthquake. The police, together with the army and the city’s hospitals, were all put on high alert, but when the fateful day arrived, nothing happened. It seemed as if Asahara was now making idle threats – but four days later a report came through that Yokohama station was the site of another gas attack. Approximately 550 people were rushed to hospital suffering from a combination of sore eyes and throats. Naturally, Aum Shinrikyo was the main suspect but a short while after the attack, a confession was made by a small-time gangster with a grudge against the police.

Still Shoku Asahara was a free man, although the police had made several significant arrests, as yet they hadn’t managed to charge anyone with the sarin-gas attack. Men such as Hideo Murai were still operating as if nothing had happened, but all this was about to change.

On April 23, Murai, together with the sect’s lawyer, Yoshinobu Aoyama, were on the point of entering their office building when a man rushed up and repeatedly stabbed Murai in the stomach. The assailant, Hiroyuki Jo, later confessed that he had committed the crime because of increasing anger at what Aum Shinrikyo had done on March 20. He later changed his story and said that he had been employed by the Yakuza – Japan’s mafia – to kill Murai in order to prevent him confessing to the police and implicating the Yakuza in Aum Shinrikyo’s attack. Hideo Murai died shortly after the stabbing, subsequent to which the police mounted further raids on more Aum Shinrikyo buildings, this time finding a basement that had hitherto lain undiscovered. In this room, cowering in a corner, officers were surprised to find two of the sect’s main players: Masami Tsuchiya and Seiichi Endo.

Despite their capture, on May 5, at Shinjuku station, staff discovered a burning package in one of the public toilets. Immediately they tried to put out the flames by pouring water over the parcel, but noxious fumes immediately began to rise from it. The police were called in and on later examination the package was found to contain condoms stuffed with sodium cyanide and sulphuric acid. When mixed, these chemicals combine to form hydrogen cyanide – the lethal gas used in the Nazi concentration camps to exterminate Jews. Once again, it seemed as if Shoku Asahara was baiting the police, showing them just how capable he was of wreaking havoc while still eluding arrest. Thankfully, however, his luck was about to run out.

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Aum Shinrikyo followers sit on the ground to perform a ritual paying tribute to the sect’s chief scientist, Hideo Murai, who had been stabbed to death on that very spot twenty-four hours earlier.

On May 16, 1995, just over two months after the sarin subway attack, police stormed one of Aum Shinrikyo’s main buildings (a structure they had searched several times previously), where they eventually arrested Asahara. This was a major coup, but the attacks continued on the Tokyo subway where several cyanide bombs were planted, although none of them actually detonated.

The trials of the different Aum Shinrikyo detainees began in 1996. Asahara was charged with twenty-three counts of murder. Charges against the other Aum Shinrikyo members ranged from murder, attempted murder, detaining people against their will, the manufacture of lethal drugs and a whole catalogue of less serious misdemeanors. A few of those in the dock gave full confessions in the hope that their sentences would be reduced. Other members, including Shoku Asahara, steadfastly pleaded not guilty. On October 8, 1998, the court sentenced Kazuaki Okazaki to death for the murder of the lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and child, as well as the murder of another cult member who had wanted to leave the sect in 1989.

Incredibly, it took a further eight years before Shoku Asahara was also handed a death sentence, after being found guilty of the murder of twenty-seven cult members. The sentence was handed down on February 27, 2004, with the presiding judge, Shoji Ogawa, stating that:

The crimes were cruel and inhuman, and his [Asahara’s] responsibility as the mastermind behind all the cases is extremely grave. He deserves the maximum punishment. He had dreams of being delivered from earth’s bonds and attempted to rule Japan as a king under the pretext of salvaging people. He had a selfish dogma of killing those who he thought were obstructing his bid, and armed his cult. He threw people in Japan and overseas into terror. It was an unprecedentedly brutal and serious crime.2

Asahara showed little emotion as the death sentence was passed, perhaps feeling safe in the knowledge that his legal team would launch an immediate appeal. Many have been reticent about expressing any opinion on the Aum Shinrikyo atrocities, even those directly affected by the organization’s activities. There is still grave concern about the kind of repercussions that members of the group could inflict. On hearing of Asahara’s sentence, Shizue Takahashi, the widow of a railway worker killed in the sarin subway attack, made the simple comment; ‘It was good to hear the death sentence that I had been hoping for.’3

On going to press, Asahara’s death sentence has still to be carried out.

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