Executions loom for doomsday cult that brought death to the Tokyo subway

The Daily Telegraph/January 15, 2014

By Julian Ryall

Mitsuru Kono hopes that once the executions begin, the nightmares might start to fade.

On the morning of March 20, 1995, he was travelling to work in the rush hour when he fell victim to an attack that traumatized a nation as Aum Shinrikyo, an apocalyptic religious cult, released sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway.

Thirteen people died and as many as 6,000 others, including Mr Kono, required hospital treatment.

Today, Makoto Hirata becomes one of the last members of Aum Shinrikyo to face justice when he appears before Tokyo District Court. Prosecutors are seeking the death sentence.

So far, 189 cult members have been indicted for crimes ranging from murder to abduction, the production of weapons and creating nerve gas.

Thirteen have been sentenced to death, including Shoko Asahara, Aum’s half-blind leader and a man his followers regarded as a reincarnated god.

Those sentences have not been carried out because prosecutors wanted to be able to call convicted cult members as witnesses in the remaining cases.

Three Death Row inmates will give evidence during Hirata’s trial. Once it finishes, the executions can go ahead of members of an organization that abducted and murdered its opponents, required its people to undergo “religious training” so severe that it killed several, manufactured weapons, truth sera and nerve gas and even had ambitions to build a nuclear weapon.

After nearly 17 years on the run, Hirata turned himself into police in January 2012. He had been wanted for his alleged involvement in the abduction in February 1995 of a Tokyo notary public looking into Aum’s activities.

Kiyoshi Kariya, 68, was taken to the cult’s fortress-like compound in the foothills of Mount Fuji, where he was given a homemade truth serum. He apparently died of an overdose and his body was burnt.

Hirata has also been questioned over his role in the sarin gas attack on the subway system two months later.

Mr Kono, now 72, was in the third carriage of a train on the Hibiya Line as it came to a halt in Kodenma-cho station. He said that the first hint that something was amiss was a powerful smell he described as reminiscent of putrefying onions.

“I never saw the attackers or the newspapers that they wrapped around the bags of liquid sarin before piercing them on the train, but the prosecutors showed me photos afterwards and I was only about 15 feet away,” Mr Kono said.

“There was a strong smell and the driver of the train announced that there had been some sort of bomb attack at Tsukiji Station, so I got out on to the platform.”

After that, much is a blank.

Mr Kono has hazy memories of getting outside the station, where he passed out. He was in and out of consciousness as he was driven to hospital in a car — the thousands affected by Aum’s coordinated attacks on five trains beneath the city had overwhelmed the emergency services.

“I was attached to drips and tubes when I came around and I couldn’t think,” he said. “I could not even remember my own phone number to call my family.”

Mr Kono’s family eventually tracked him down that evening, but was unable to see him as he was in an isolation ward.

“They told my wife about my condition. She did not think I was going to survive,” he said.

Released after 13 days, Mr Kono is still receiving treatment for internal complications from ingesting the sarin. “Every morning, my feet and my legs and feet are cold and rigid,” said Mr Kono, who also has problems with his vision.

He is also afflicted by what his doctors have termed “memorial syndrome” in the run-up to the anniversary of the attack.

“My health deteriorates every March,” he said. “My doctors tell me that I need to try to remain calm, to take things very easy and I hope it will not be so bad this year.”

Experts say that Mr Kono and the other commuters aboard the trains were fortunate: the sarin had been concocted at short notice in Aum Shinrikyo’s laboratories because Asahara, the founder of the cult, rightly feared the police were planning an investigation of its activities.

If they had been given time to refine the liquid to its most potent, colourless and odourless form, it could have been 70 recent more powerful and effective in a confined space.

Yet it did claim the life of Kazumasa Takahashi, who was a senior member of staff at Kasumigaseki station. He ingested a lethal amount of the gas as he tried to remove a leaking bag from a train.

His wife, Shizue, has attended 430 hearings involving members of the cult and will be in court for Hirata’s appearance today (Thursday).

“The bag of sarin that killed my husband was left there by Ikuo Hayashi and in court he said that he did not deserve to live,” said Mrs Takahashi, who heads the Tokyo Subway Sarin Incident Victims’ Association. “But I never felt like he made a real apology to us.”

Hayashi, a doctor who had graduated from the elite Keio University, avoided the death penalty and is serving a life sentence.

Asahara founded the cult in 1984, melding teachings from Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism with interpretations from yoga and Nostradamus. Declaring himself a reincarnation of Christ, he promised to wash away the sins of his followers and railed against conspiracies against Aum by Jews and the British Royal family. He also predicted the imminent outbreak of a third world war.

The cult recruited heavily from Japan’s top universities, reaching out to young men who were socially inept and seeking to make friends, but who were also experts in engineering and the sciences.

Ashara, now 58, faced 27 counts of murder at his trial. The prosecution said that he gave the order to attack the Tokyo subway in order to overthrow the government and install himself as emperor of Japan.

Now he awaits the hangman’s noose.

For Mr Kono it cannot come soon enough.

“I lost the life that I used to have because of these people,” he said. “Friends ask me why the executions have not been carried out already and it is difficult for me to explain. Almost 20 years have passed already.”

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