Tokyo - The investigation into the near-fatal shooting of Japan's police chief 15 years ago, a high-profile case linked to the religious cult behind a nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subway, has been dropped because the statute of limitations has expired, police said Tuesday.
The announcement comes just as the government was preparing to enact a law to scrap the time limit on cold cases, part of a package of reforms aimed at modernizing Japan's justice system.
National Police Agency chief Takaji Kunimatsu was shot three times 10 days after the sarin nerve gas attacks on the city's subways during rush hour on March 20, 1995, that was eventually blamed on the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult. The five co-ordinated attacks killed 13 people and sickened 6,300 others.
Tokyo police believed the shooting was aimed at thwarting a crackdown on the cult, and had mobilized 480,000 officers to investigate the case. Tokyo police arrested four men linked to the cult in 2004, but prosecutors later decided not to indict them due to a lack of evidence.
Tokyo's public security chief said he regretted not being able to solve the case before the 15-year statute of limitations on the crime ran out.
"We could not bring to justice the culprit in the contemptible terrorist attack," said Goro Aoki. "It's truly regrettable."
But Kunimatsu said police bear a responsibility to provide a fuller explanation of the failure to solve the case, which shook the country's sense of security at the time it occurred.
"They can't just say ‘Sorry, time's up,' like any other case," said Kunimatsu, who has since retired and now heads a non-profit organization. "They should seriously reflect upon their failure to investigate deeper and gather enough evidence to pursue criminal charges on the case."
The Cabinet this month approved a bill to scrap the statute of limitations on capital crimes - which was 15 years at the time of shooting and now stands at 25 years. The measure is awaiting parliament's approval. The bill is part of a legislative effort to reform Japan's criminal justice system, which has long been criticized as lacking in transparency and failing to protect the rights of victims - as well as the accused.
Aum founder Shoko Asahara, sentenced to hang in 2004, is on death row for masterminding the subway attack. Eleven followers also have been sentenced to death for the subway attack.
In 2000, Aum renamed itself Aleph but remains under close police surveillance.