Tokyo -- The Tokyo District Court sentenced to life imprisonment a former member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult who took part in four incidents, including a 1994 nerve-gas attack that killed seven people in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. Presiding Judge Toshio Nagai handed down the ruling to Noboru Nakamura, 34. Prosecutors had demanded the death penalty.
According to the ruling, Nakamura conspired with Shoko Asahara, 46, the Aum founder whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, and served as a lookout in the sarin gas attack on 27 June 1994, as other Aum members released the gas. The attack targeted a condominium where judges lived. It killed seven and injured four nearby residents.
Nakamura was also involved in abducting and killing an Aum follower's 68-year-old relative in 1995 and conspired to kill a 27- year-old Aum member in 1994. He took part in the construction of a sarin production plant as well, the ruling said.
Nakamura had admitted serving as a lookout in the 1994 gas attack. But he denied conspiring with Asahara and that he intended to kill anyone, saying he did not know sarin was a deadly gas and that other members had released the gas.
Nagai said in handing down the ruling: "Each incident was carried out under the order of Asahara, who was considered an absolute being in the religious cult, and Nakamura took the incidents as his job at the cult and did not have his own motivation for them." He had only "subordinately participated" in three incidents, including the Matsumoto sarin gas attack, the ruling said.
The ruling also said it cannot be proved Nakamura knew that the gas released in Matsumoto was sarin and that he was aware it was deadly. The ruling added it is difficult to say whether Nakamura was able to predict the serious damage the gas caused.
The court decided that there is great discrepancy between the action of Asahara, the mastermind of the crime, and Nakamura and that it cannot admit that capital punishment is imperative for Nakamura.
The prosecutors had demanded the death penalty, saying it is impossible to reform Nakamura. They said there is a danger of Nakamura again committing similar crimes because he still sees Asahara as the ultimate religious leader and maintains AUM beliefs allowing murder. Nakamura's defence lawyers said imprisoning Nakamura for a fixed term is appropriate because he never played a leading role in any of the incidents.
Two other former Aum members who took part in the attack in Matsumoto have already been sentenced. Satoru Hashimoto, 34, who drove a van equipped with a sprayer and fan that released the deadly gas, was sentenced to death. Takashi Tomita, 43, who drove a lookout van, was handed a 17-year prison term. Both have appealed the rulings.