Doomsday Cult Member Gets Death

The Associated Press/June 26, 2002

Tokyo -- A former doomsday cult leader was sentenced to death Wednesday for his involvement in numerous murders, including the nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and sickened thousands.

Tomomitsu Niimi, former "home affairs minister'' of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, was found guilty in Tokyo District Court of murdering 26 people in seven separate attacks, including the 1995 subway gassing and the slaying of a lawyer and his family.

Court official Hideyuki Ito said Niimi has decided to appeal the case. It was unclear when the next court proceedings begin.

Niimi was given the death sentence by a three-judge panel presided over by head judge Yujiro Nakatani, Ito said.

Niimi gained notoriety at the start of his trial in 1996 by refusing to enter pleas and pledging eternal loyalty to Aum guru Shoko Asahara.

He has since reportedly confessed to all charges brought against him except involvement in the subway attack. But he claimed he was following Asahara's orders and shouldn't be subject to the death penalty.

Niimi is accused of helping organize the 1989 strangulation of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto - one of the first to question the cult's activities - and the lawyer's wife and son.

Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has been on trial since April 1996. He is indicted on charges of directing the Tokyo subway assault, as well as other killings.

So far, prosecutors have demanded death sentences for 11 cult members. Nine have been sentenced to die, but none of the sentences have been carried out.

The charismatic Asahara had predicted an apocalypse that only cult members would survive. Media have reported the cult was developing chemical, biological and conventional weapons in an apparent attempt to attack cities and overthrow the government.

The cult was declared bankrupt in March 1996, but later regrouped under the name Aleph. It is under surveillance by Japan's Public Safety Agency, which has warned that the group remains a threat.

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