Aum Shinrikyo's intelligence chief, found guilty of involvement in the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and other crimes, was sentenced Tuesday to life in prison.
While prosecutors had demanded the death penalty for Yoshihiro Inoue, 30, the Tokyo District Court handed down a life prison term on the grounds that he did not take part in the act of releasing the deadly gas on the subway trains and only provided backup support.
Despite his lack of direct involvement, the court said Inoue played an important role in the gassing, which could not have taken place as planned without his contribution.
Prosecutors pointed out that Inoue, one of Aum founder Shoko Asahara's closest aides, commanded other Aum followers who actually released the sarin on morning subway trains, killing 12 people and injuring thousands.
However, presiding Judge Hiromichi Inoue determined that the defendant's role in the attack was limited to "logistic support and coordination," saying that he had not been ordered by Asahara to take charge.
In the ruling, the court said that if the nature of the heinous crimes, the feelings of the victims and their families as well as the impact on society were considered alone, then Inoue did, in fact, deserve the death sentence. The judge said the court was "giving the defendant a ruling that will allow him to live."
The court took into consideration the fact that Inoue, who joined the cult when he was 16, showed deep regret over his crimes and that Asahara controlled his mind at the time of the crimes, he said.
Despite Asahara's influence, the judge said Inoue still retained some free will and was capable of recognizing that his acts were illegal. Inoue left Aum a few months after his arrest in May 1995 and sought guidance from Buddhism.
"(Your time in prison) should not be used for religious training or meditation but as a time to repent, apologize and reflect as a normal human being (rather than as a Buddhist trainee)," the judge told Inoue.
Wearing a navy blue suit with a white shirt, Inoue burst into tears as the judge made his suggestions after reading out the ruling, a process that took more than three hours.
Inoue also stood accused of nine other offenses, including the abduction, confinement and killing of Tokyo notary public Kiyoshi Kariya in February 1995.
Two Aum members have so far been sentenced to hang for a series of crimes carried out by the cult.
Prosecutors greeted the ruling with surprise, saying they were considering appealing the sentence.
Inoue's defense said the ruling carefully considered the facts of the matter. They also welcomed the judge's subsequent instructions that Inoue reflect on his past as a human being rather than as a trainee monk.
After the ruling, a 29-year-old woman whose father was killed in the subway attack said she was surprised by the decision. She said she had expected nothing but the death penalty.
"I believe Inoue deserves to be sentenced to death because he was in a position of authority over those who executed the attack and he should be held responsible for their acts," said the woman, who declined to be named. She said Inoue deserved the death penalty during her testimony in his trial in October.
The woman said Inoue had not appeared to regret his acts when she testified in October and she doubted if he had changed his attitude since then. Tomoo Takei, deputy chief of the lawyers representing plaintiffs bringing civil suits against Aum, said that if the sentiments of the victims and their families were thoroughly considered then the only possible ruling would have been the death penalty.
But Taro Takimoto, a lawyer for Aum's victims and a supporter of those who have left the cult, said he supports the ruling. He said only Asahara should receive the death penalty.
Hiroyuki Nagaoka, leader of a group of relatives of former Aum members, said he was glad that Inoue had not been sentenced to death. "I kept thinking that it could have been my son standing there being convicted," said Nagaoka. Nagaoka was himself attacked by the cult with VX gas in retaliation for his efforts to free his son from the cult."
Nagaoka said he believes Asahara was responsible for deceiving young people desperate to find meaning, but added that parents should feel some responsibility for letting their children follow Asahara. "I just hope that Inoue will regret his sins deeply as a human being, like the judge told him to," he said.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is still on trial for allegedly masterminding the subway attack and 16 other crimes. Of the 14 cultists accused of involvement in the subway attack, one convicted of releasing the gas has been sentenced to death and another was given a life prison term.
Three others are awaiting a decision, and prosecutors have demanded they be sentenced to death. Two convicted of driving getaway cars have been sentenced to life prison terms, and another is awaiting sentencing.
Former Aum doctor Ikuo Hayashi, who released the gas on one of the subway trains, was sentenced to life in 1998 after the court took his confession and repentant attitude into consideration, claiming it gad helped authorities' investigation into Aum.
Inoue's sentence covered all 10 charges he faced in connection with the gassing and nine other offenses, including the lynching of Aum follower Kotaro Ochida in 1994, the VX-gas murder of Tadahito Hamaguchi, the attempted murder of Noboru Mizuno in December 1994 and of anti-Aum activist Hiroyuki Nagaoka in January 1995.
Both Mizuno and Nagaoka were targeted because they were protecting former cult members. Hamaguchi was attacked because the cult suspected he was a spy from the Public Security Investigation Agency.
Regarding the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, prosecutors claimed Inoue had conspired with Asahara, senior cultist Seiichi Endo and the cult's late science chief, Hideo Murai, to release sarin aboard subway trains with the aim of distracting police as they were about to raid the cult's facilities.
Police suspected at the time that Aum was involved in Kariya's disappearance, which occurred shortly before the attack. Inoue's defense argued that he did not conspire with Asahara as charged, but merely followed his orders, urging the court to take into account that Inoue's confession helped prosecutors build their case against fellow cultists involved in the attack.
Inoue's lawyers also said their client joined Aum at the age of 16 and with little experience of life, was under Asahara's mind control and unable to resist his orders.
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