The first series of trials of Aum Supreme Truth cult members reached a major milestone Friday, when the Tokyo District Court handed the death sentence to one of the cult's senior members.
Kiyohide Hayakawa, 51, was sentenced to death in two murder cases, including that of a lawyer and his family.
Including Hayakawa, the district court so far has handed sentences to 13 of 19 members involved in one or more of the three major Aum murder cases and charged on suspicion of murder or attempted murder.
The cases include the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, a similar sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994, and the murder of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family in 1989.
Seven of the 13--four of whom were found guilty of releasing sarin gas in the subway system and three of whom also were found guilty of murdering the lawyer and his family--were sentenced to death.
The sentences emphasized the fact that cult founder and former guru Chizuo Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, masterminded the incidents. They also reflected the fact that many senior cult members participated in the crimes under Matsumoto's orders.
Ikuo Hayashi was the only one of the four found guilty of releasing sarin gas in the subway system who avoided the death penalty. Hayashi was sentenced to life imprisonment based on the judgment that the extent of the cult's criminal acts could not have been revealed without his surrender to police and testimony.
The flip side of the judgment noted that the cult's criminal acts were extremely heinous and caused severe harm to the public.
However, the court opposed some of the prosecutors' arguments. For instance, although prosecutors described Yoshihiro Inoue, who played a leading role in the subway sarin gas incident as "the leading force behind the crime," the court sentenced him to life imprisonment, reasoning that Inoue did not take a leading role in ordering other members to release the gas, but rather, played a secondary role, in which he simply coordinated contacts with other members."
Sentences of Aum members convicted of crimes have been handed out in accordance with the roles that each member played.
The district court has yet to hand down sentences to Tomomitsu Niimi and Tomomasa Nakagawa, who are both suspected of having been involved in all three of the most serious murder cases, and Masami Tsuchiya and Seiichi Endo, both of whom reportedly helped make sarin gas.
Their proceedings are likely to take more time because their defense lawyers' arguments are at an early stage.
As for Matsumoto, prosecutors have just begun to establish the facts concerning the 12th of the 17 crimes in which he is suspected to have been involved.
To avoid prolonged court hearings, some members of the legal field have demanded the cancellation of six of the 17 indictments against Matsumoto relating to crimes in which no one was harmed.
However, prosecutors have decided to begin proceedings regarding the cult's production of automatic rifles this month, claiming it is necessary to clarify how the group had built up its armory.
The plethora of sentences handed down in Aum-related trials between last month and this month has highlighted the length of Matsumoto's trial, and it is inevitable that moves to speed up the leader's trials will accelerate.