Ex-doomsday cult leader will hang

Court imposes death sentence in subway nerve gas attack

MSNBC News, September 30, 1999

TOKYO, Sept. 30, 1999 - A former doomsday cult leader who spread lethal nerve gas in one of Tokyo's busiest subway stations in 1995 was sentenced to hang Thursday for his role in the attack, which killed 12 people.

IT WAS the first death sentence meted out in the subway gassing case, blamed on the Aum Shinri Kyo cult. Former cult guru Shoko Asahara is on trial for masterminding the assault.

The Tokyo District Court handed down the verdict on Masato Yokoyama, 35, early Thursday, said a court official, who spoke on customary condition of anonymity.

Yokoyama was one of a squad of five Aum agents who released the nerve gas sarin in subway trains as they converged on Tokyo's central government district during morning rush hour. Thousands were sickened.

Growing Fear

The sentence came a day after cult leaders announced they would stop recruiting members, close branch offices and change their name, apparently in a campaign to defuse public sentiment against them.

Fear has been growing over the past year that the group is on the rise again, amassing funds from computer sales and holding "seminars" around the country. Several local groups are trying to push Aum offices out of their neighborhoods.

In the case decided today, presiding judge Manabu Yamazaki held Yokoyama responsible for the 1995 killings, even though the defense pointed out that no one died on the train the defendant was on.

"His criminal responsibility is so heavy that we have no choice but to hand down the death penalty," Yamazaki was quoted as saying in news reports.

Two other cult members who directly participated in the gassing have been given life in prison.

National broadcaster NHK reported that Yokohama argued that he had not intended to kill anybody, but Kyodo News reported that prosecutors said the riders on Yokoyama's train were saved only because it ran above ground and had better ventilation.

Judge Yamazaki rejected the defense's argument that Yokoyama had been brainwashed by the cult at the time of the attack, Kyodo said.

The government is also stiffening its stance against the cult. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka said today the government will speed legislation to restrict the group's activities, despite Aum's pledge to tone down its profile.

"(Aum) hasn't apologized or reflected sincerely on the subway gas attack and other crimes, and we cannot change our suspicion that the group remains dangerous," Nonaka was quoted as saying by a spokesman, who declined to be named.

Public sentiment is also firmly against the cult. Residents in areas where Aum has bought land have staged noisy protests, and local governments have backed them by refusing residence permits.

"People living near cult facilities have long felt strong anxiety, and we share their fears," Nonaka said.

New Accusations

Police say the group is still involved in shady activities. On Wednesday, two senior Aum officials were arrested on charges of confining a 29-year-old female member against her will as part of religious training.

She had her hands and feet bound with adhesive tape and sometimes had her head pushed into a water tank until she lost consciousness, officials said. She managed to escape last April.

Aum, believed to have some 2,100 followers, has never acknowledged responsibility for the subway gassing and has repeatedly insisted that it is not dangerous.

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