While the trial of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara has proceeded at a snail's pace, with prosecutors examining only nine out of the 17 counts that he faces to date, his disciples' trials have entered their final stages before the district court.
This year, prosecutors sought the death penalty for seven Aum followers and life prison terms for three others accused of taking part in the March 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and in the November 1989 murder of anticult lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and their baby son.
"Aum trials will reach a turning point next summer when a number of rulings will be handed down on senior cult figures," said Ryuzo Saki, a nonfiction writer who has covered the court proceedings for Asahara and other key Aum members.
For the 1995 sarin attack, prosecutors sought death sentences for cult members accused of actually releasing the gas on the trains and life terms for their getaway drivers.
In December, prosecutors demanded that Toru Toyoda, Kenichi Hirose and Yasuo Hayashi be sentenced to death for releasing the deadly gas, and life in prison for Shigeo Sugimoto, who stands accused of driving Hayashi to a subway station.
Although Yoshihiro Inoue was not accused of releasing the gas, prosecutors again demanded the death penalty, claiming he played a key role in the attack by giving directions to the cultists.
Court rulings to date have upheld the prosecutors' demands. Masato Yokoyama, who was convicted of releasing sarin, was sentenced in September to death, whereas Koichi Kitamura, who drover one of the getaway cars, was sentenced to life imprisonment in November.
Prosecutors also demanded that Kiyohide Hayakawa and Satoru Hashimoto be sentenced to death for the Sakamoto killings.
In testimony during the trial of two cult defendants in September, Asahara denied being involved in the 1995 sarin gas attack, claiming that Inoue proposed the plan to the late Hideo Murai, and the two carried it out without his knowledge. Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has yet to be convicted.
But in a July ruling against Masahiro Tominaga, the court declared that Asahara orchestrated all 17 crimes he stands accused of committing.
The following is a summary of developments in the trials of key Aum figures in 1999:
Yoshihiro Inoue, 30, the cult's former intelligence chief, kept his eyes closed while prosecutors read their six-hour statement demanding that he be hanged.
Inoue stands accused of 10 criminal charges, including the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack, the lynchings of errant cultists Shuji Taguchi in February 1989 and Kotaro Ochida in January 1994, and the killing of a Tokyo notary public in February 1995.
Prosecutors termed Inoue an "enthusiastic" participant in the crimes, alleging that his leadership stemmed from his "hunger for power" within the cult.
Inoue's apparent efforts to reveal all he knows about the cult and the crimes allegedly carried out by Aum has been consistent since his first hearing in March 1996. However, prosecutors said he filled his testimony with excuses in a bid to seek leniency and did not demonstrate "appropriate remorse."
Kiyohide Hayakawa, 50, after four years on trial on seven counts, faced a demand earlier this month by prosecutors that he be hanged for his role in the killings of the Sakamoto family and Taguchi.
As one of Asahara's closest aides, Hayakawa played a "key role" in murdering the lawyer, his wife and their son by instructing other cult followers how to carry out the murders and by participating in the stranglings as well, prosecutors said.
During the trial, Hayakawa said he could not resist Asahara's order to kill the Sakamoto family and Taguchi because he believed the order was "absolute."
"I was afraid that I would be sent to hell if I disobeyed," Hayakawa told the court in September. "I didn't want to commit crimes ... but I could not be confident that Asahara was wrong."
Yasuo Hayashi, 42, apparently expecting that prosecutors would demand the death penalty, seemed unmoved when they did so earlier this month for his alleged role in the 1995 sarin gas attack.
Unlike other cult followers, who claimed they participated in the attack out of blind faith in Asahara, Hayashi, the cult's former deputy science and technology chief, said he took part in the attack because he was afraid of being punished by Asahara.
Hayashi, who stands accused on other criminal counts, said he believed Asahara did not believe he was faithful to the cult, and thus he was selected to take part in the subway gassing.
He claimed in court that he was not an enthusiastic believer and often sought ways to avoid the religious trainings, remaining in the cult only because his friends were fellow members.
Masami Tsuchiya, 34, the cult's chief chemist, admitted for the first time in a statement provided by his counsel that he produced sarin and VX gas, but maintained that he was not aware that Aum intended to kill people using the nerve agents.
In the statement issued earlier this month, his counsel said Tsuchiya was ordered by Murai to produce sarin at an Aum laboratory. Murai's goal was to produce some 70 tons of sarin at Aum's No. 7 Satyam plant in the village of Kamikuishiki, Yamanashi Prefecture.
Tsuchiya succeeded in making a 20-gram sample of sarin in November 1993 and scaled up production to 30 kg in 1994, prosecutors said. These acts were made purely out of scientific interest, his lawyers claimed, as the defendant did not know about the cult's wrongdoings.
Apparently still faithful to Asahara, Tsuchiya has remained silent since his trial started in November 1995.
Seiichi Endo, 39, remained prim and matter-of-fact when he broke his two-year silence and identified Asahara as the mastermind behind the subway gas attack.
Asked by prosecutors to identify the individual who ordered the attack, Endo indicated Asahara and said, "He seems different from the way I remember him, but that's him," during Asahara's 103rd trial session at the beginning of the year. It was the first firsthand testimony to link Asahara with the subway gassing.
But Endo staunchly denies that he played a leading role in the gas attack and claims he was only following orders. A one-time biologist, Endo stands accused of seven crimes, including the production of sarin in connection with the subway attack and the June 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, following the instructions of rival Tsuchiya.
Tomomitsu Niimi, 35, who stands accused of taking part in seven Aum murders, appears indifferent in court about how his trial has been progressing and has not expressed remorse for his alleged role in the crimes.
When Yoko Ito took the witness stand in September and tearfully asked him to confess to his roles in the crimes, Niimi, Aum's home affairs chief, remained silent and his eyes firmly shut.
Ito's son died in the 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto.
Niimi also showed no reaction when Tomoyuki Oyama, mother of lawyer Sakamoto's wife, Satoko, called him "a coward who cannot admit his crimes" in a November hearing.
Referring to recent confrontations between Aum followers and local residents across the country, Niimi, who spoke for the first time in his own trial, denounced the public as "hysterical."
But when a judge asked him about his feelings toward the people allegedly killed by Aum members and their next of kin, he once again refused to speak.
Tomomasa Nakagawa, 37, a former cult doctor and one of Asahara's closest aides who is being tried on 11 counts, including taking part in the 1994 and 1995 sarin gas attacks, is apparently not willing to talk in detail about the offenses of which he stands accused.
In hearings earlier this year, he often refused to testify, apparently to avoid incriminating his colleagues.
He does, however sometimes show the agitation of a man aware of his responsibility to reveal the truth.
Nakagawa stands accused of murdering Sakamoto and his family. The killings took place just two months after he resigned from a hospital, where he had been an intern, to become a resident cultist.
He was reportedly kind and volunteered to help disabled people in his college days and was not interested in extrasensory powers, such as those extolled by Asahara.
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