FOCUS:Ex-PM Abe shooter trial to face issue of sympathy for church "victim"

Kyodo News/January 26, 2023

Following his indictment, pretrial proceedings against the shooter of Shinzo Abe are expected to throw up difficult issues, with his defense likely to attempt to offset shock over the first murder of a postwar Japanese leader by presenting him as a "victim" of a religious group that ruined his family financially.

Tetsuya Yamagami was charged on Jan. 13 with murder and violating the firearms control law for killing Abe, Japan's longest-serving prime minister, with a homemade gun during an election campaign rally in July last year.

He has told investigators he held a grudge against the Unification Church, a group originally founded in South Korea, and targeted Abe because he was a grandson of former Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, who helped the group set up in Japan, according to investigative sources.

The church has since come under intense scrutiny for its links with a number of politicians in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, with allegations that it supported their election campaigns.

Yamagami's defense team is expected to focus on extenuating circumstances, while prosecutors will likely seek capital punishment, arguing the attack threatened the democratic process, legal experts say. They also note that given the presence of members of the public at the rally, others could have been hurt.

The complicated nature of the case could prolong pretrial proceedings between prosecutors, Yamagami's defense counsel and the court, with the trial possibly not taking place until next year, some legal experts say.

Yamagami was born in 1980 to a mother from a wealthy family. But his father killed himself in 1984. His mother joined the Unification Church, known for its mass weddings and aggressive donation solicitations, around 1991.

His mother then donated a large sum of money to the religious group, which was established by a staunch South Korean anti-communist in 1954. She used the life insurance proceeds after her husband's death and sold off land that she inherited from her father to make large donations to the group, formally known as the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.

The mother filed for personal bankruptcy in 2002 after having donated more than 100 million yen ($784,000) in total, pushing the family into financial and emotional distress.

Yamagami, 42, attended a prestigious high school in Nara Prefecture but had to give up going to university because of the family's financial situation. He joined the Maritime Self-Defense Force instead in 2002.

Yamagami attempted suicide in 2005. He reportedly hoped he could have helped his older brother and younger sister with money from his life insurance policy.

His brother, who had suffered from childhood cancer, underwent surgeries and became blind in one eye before taking his own life in 2015.

"The defendant is also a victim," a person close to the defense team said. The claim came as the public focuses on the plight of so-called "second-generation" members of the church, who often suffer from poverty, neglect, and attempts to force them to share their parents' faith.

Moved by Yamagami's childhood misfortune, a civic group demanding a lenient sentence for him organized a petition on, drawing around 13,000 signatures.

"There are many people who become desperate due to their parents' religious faith," Kei Saito, the head of the organization, called The Group Calling for a Reduced Sentence for Mr. Tetsuya Yamagami, told a press conference after the indictment.

'The defendant has received letters, gifts and food from supporters since he was detained, according to his uncle. There have even been donations totaling more than 1 million yen.

"There are circumstances that should be considered with respect to the defendant. It's true that the incident has saved other so-called second-generation religious members," a former prosecutor said.

According to the indictment, Yamagami shot Abe on July 8, 2022 at close range in the western Japan city of Nara. Two bullets hit Abe's upper left arm and neck, causing him to die of blood loss. Abe was giving a campaign speech two days ahead of a House of Councillors election.

As gun ownership is strictly controlled in Japan, which prides itself on being a safe society, the fatal shooting had a profound impact on society.

Leaders around the world also expressed shock and outrage, condemning the attack.

Despite his sympathy, the former prosecutor believes the court is unlikely to be lenient, noting a gun was fired at a public gathering, potentially endangering others.

"It would be appropriate to define (the shooting) as an 'act of terror' and I assume (Yamagami's personal circumstances) will not much influence the court's decision on the degree of punishment," the former prosecutor said.

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