Death Sentence in Japan Cult Case

July 28, 2000
By Ginny Parker, Associated Press Writer

TOKYO (AP) - The cult driver. The so-called "construction minister." A technical expert dubbed the "murder machine" who helped plot a deadly nerve gas attack in Tokyo.

Over the past few months, judges have handed down one death sentence after another to senior members of the doomsday cult responsible for the 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and sickened thousands. But Japan is extremely secretive about executions, and nothing has yet been heard of any Aum executions - which may not occur for years. The latest ruling came Friday, when Tokyo District Court Judge Kaoru Kanayama sentenced former Aum Shinri Kyo member Kiyohide Hayakawa, 51, to death for his role in two murders and for building a sarin nerve gas factory.

One key player is yet to be sentenced, or convicted: Shoko Asahara, the enigmatic guru who was the force behind the cult and who is believed to have issued the orders that his followers are to die for. Asahara, 45, is on trial for masterminding the subway attack and other crimes, including an earlier nerve gas attack in central Japan. Japanese trials are notoriously lengthy, but Asahara's is aggravated by the 17 charges he faces and the difficulty of putting together evidence against the guru, who gave orders but did not personally take part in any of the crimes.

"It's going to take at least 15 more years, maybe 20," said Masaki Kito, a lawyer for victims of the subway gassing. The cult's leaders concede Asahara and other members were behind the subway gassing, which was meant to set off a chain of events leading to Armageddon. Still, they insist that he is spiritually "a genius." Although Aum is banned and under surveillance, its approximately 2,000 members are still active and have attempted a resurgence under the name Aleph.

The group has apologized for the subway gas attack and promised to compensate victims. It continues to recruit members, and finances its activities through several small retail operations. In May, police found instructions for making nerve gas in a car owned by a cult member. The group denied accusations that it planned to again make the poison.

Residents in areas where the cult has bought land have protested, and local governments have backed them by refusing to issue residence permits. Hayakawa, known as the cult's "construction minister," was found guilty of killing anti-cult lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and infant son in 1989. He was also convicted of the 1989 strangling of a young cult member who wanted to leave the group.

"It is unforgivable that he showed no hesitation to kill in the interest of the religious group. There is no room at all for mercy. We cannot see even a fragment of humanity in him," the judge was quoted as saying by Kyodo News agency.

Like several others among the 14 indicted members of the cult, Hayakawa's defense rested on the claim that he was brainwashed by Asahara. Other Aum members recently sentenced include Satoru Hashimoto, 33, who was given the death penalty this week for his role in killing the lawyer, who had been trying to help people leave the cult.

Earlier in the month, Toru Toyoda, 32, and Kenichi Hirose, 36, were sentenced to die for a direct role in the rush-hour subway attack, and cult driver Shigeo Sugimoto, 41, was given life in prison.

Two other cultists convicted of taking a direct role in the 1995 gas attack, Masato Yokoyama and Yasuo Hayashi, were also sentenced to death. And Kazuaki Okazaki, 39, was handed the death sentence in October 1998 for his role in the murder of the lawyer and his family.

In Japan, the death penalty is carried out by hanging. The names of those executed here are not announced, but word usually leaks out. Last December, the Justice Ministry announced two executions, and said they were the fourth and fifth carried out in 1999.

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