A key Aum Shinrikyo figure was sentenced to death Friday for playing an important role in the murders of an anticult lawyer, the lawyer's family and another member who wanted to leave the cult.
In handing down the sentence, Judge Kaoru Kanayama said Kiyohide Hayakawa, 51, deserves to hang despite his lawyers' call for a lighter sentence because he was acting on the orders of Aum founder Shoko Asahara, 45. "Even if he was merely a puppet of Asahara, he cannot escape his grave criminal responsibility, considering the nature of his crimes, their motives, style, impact on society and the victims' sentiments," the judge said.
Lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, 33, his wife, Satoko, 29, and their 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko, were murdered in their Yokohama condominium in November 1989. Cultist Shuji Taguchi, 21, was strangled in February that year, the ruling said.
Hayakawa played a leading role in the Sakamoto killings by giving instructions to other cultists, the court said. Friday's ruling is the third death sentence handed down in the Sakamoto killings, for which seven cultists, including Asahara, are held responsible. Satoru Hashimoto, a karate practitioner and former bodyguard of Asahara, was sentenced to death Monday for striking the lawyer several times and kicking the wife's stomach while they were being strangled.
Kazuo Okazaki was sentenced to hang in October 1998 for actually strangling the lawyer. His appeal hearings started last month. According to Friday's ruling, Hayakawa, who joined Aum in 1986, entered the Sakamotos' apartment at around 3 a.m. on Nov. 4, 1989, and after confirming that the family was asleep, signaled his five accomplices to storm into the room.
Hayakawa pinned the lawyer's legs while Okazaki strangled him. He also took part in killing Sakamoto's wife by joining with the other cultists in strangling her, the court said. Asahara had ordered the six men to kill Sakamoto because he saw the attorney as a hindrance to the cult, the court said. Sakamoto was helping parents seeking to retrieve their children from Aum and was preparing a lawsuit against the cult. The crime was "extremely short-sighted and self-centered" and leaves no room for leniency, Judge Kanayama said.
The killing of the lawyer's baby son -- even after Satoko Sakamoto begged for mercy for him while on the verge of her own death -- "was especially cruel and brutal, and one can see no humanity there," the judge said. The cultists later buried the Sakamoto family separately in mountainous areas of Nagano, Niigata and Toyoma prefectures. Police found the bodies in 1995 based on Okazaki's confession.
Hayakawa was found guilty of seven charges, including helping Aum produce sarin nerve gas and LSD. In Taguchi's slaying, Hayakawa and three other cultists choked him with a rope at first, then Hayakawa and two of the cultists held Taguchi down while the fourth member, Tomomitsu Niimi, strangled him, the court said. The four killed Taguchi on Asahara's orders because he had seen another cultist murdered and Aum feared he might make the incident public if he fled, the court said.
During his trial, Hayakawa expressed remorse for the victims, saying he is "unpardonable as a human being." However, he also claimed he could not defy Asahara's orders to kill the Sakamotos and Taguchi because he believed them to be "absolute." Prosecutors in December had demanded the death penalty, but Hayakawa's lawyers had asked for leniency. They said the cultist had showed a sincere attitude by telling the truth and argued that he faced the threat of death if he defied Asahara's orders.
The defense team filed an appeal immediately after the court adjourned. After the ruling, Sachiyo Sakamoto, the slain attorney's mother, said in a statement that she believes the ruling was reasonable, considering that Hayakawa and the other cultists killed not only her son and his wife but also her grandson.
"I want him to feel the gravity of killing someone by facing death himself," she said. Sakamoto's former colleagues said Hayakawa's death sentence has a heavier meaning than Monday's ruling on Hashimoto, because Hayakawa played a key role in the lawyer's murder.
Lawyer Hisashi Okada said Hayakawa could have avoided the murders because he was in a position of telling other cultists to actually carry out the crime. "I felt a bit sorry for Hashimoto when I heard his death sentence, but I cannot feel sorry for Hayakawa," Okada said. Four other cultists have also been sentenced to death for releasing sarin on Tokyo subway trains in March 1995, which killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,500.