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Saturday, June 16, 2012


Pending trials to revisit dark chapters of the cult

Staff writer

When the Supreme Court in mid-December rejected an Aum Shinrikyo convict's objection to the finalization of his death sentence, it almost closed the curtain on the cult responsible for the deadliest crimes in modern Japanese history, including the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

But with the last gas attack fugitive, Katsuya Takahashi, in custody, the courts will inevitably revisit the atrocities committed by the cultists, whose spiritual pursuits under guru Shoko Asahara claimed 29 lives and left more than 6,500 people injured.

Aum's critics say the trio of recently captured fugitives — Takahashi, 54, Makoto Hirata, 47, and Naoko Kikuchi, 40 — will not shed dramatic new light on the cult and its crimes because most of the pieces of the puzzle have already been put together via the trials of the other cultists.

But experts expressed hope that revisiting Aum's mayhem will raise public awareness of the potential dangers of joining cults.

"We need to analyze why young people were attracted to that group, and how to prevent others from joining them. Otherwise, even if the Aum trials are over, new groups can emerge and attract young people and the same things can be repeated," said Yoshifu Arita, a Democratic Party of Japan lawmaker who closely followed the Aum trials as a freelance journalist.

To date, 188 out of 189 cultists were convicted for involvement in one or more of Aum's crimes, which included the 1989 murders of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and 1-year-old son, and the 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that killed eight people and sickened or injured well over a hundred.

More than a decade after the crimes, Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was convicted as the mastermind and sentenced to death in 2004. His sentenced was finalized by the Supreme Court in 2006.

While the last three fugitives wanted over the subway attack spent up to 17 years on the run, the collective public memory was gradually fading of the mayhem waged by the doomsday cult — whose members included doctors, scientists and graduates from elite universities who were in part deluded into thinking they were on a mission to save the world.

Even the police officer Hirata first approached on New Year's Eve last year didn't take him seriously when he attempted to turn himself in, and told him to go to another police station.

Hirata's emergence pushed the police to raise their game and find the other two. This included raising the bounty on their heads from ¥5 million to ¥10 million.

This apparently paid off. Ac-cording to the National Police Agency, the number of people who came forward with information jumped starting in January. While 112 calls about Kikuchi were received in 2011, a total of 321 people came forward with information between January and May this year. Calls about Takahashi leaped from 35 last year to 151 in the same five-month span, they said.

In fact, tips from informants led to Takahashi's arrest Friday as well as Kikuchi's on June 3 in Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture.

Pundits say that compared with the 13 Aum members already on death row, including Asahara, the roles played by Hirata and Kikuchi were less serious. Takahashi, who outranked his two cohorts, was allegedly involved in the subway gas attacks and other crimes but was also subordinate to the cult's top disciples.

Hirata is charged with abduction and confinement in connection with the fatal February 1995 abduction of Tokyo notary Kiyoshi Kariya, 68. Based on cultists' trial testimony, Kariya died from an overdose of truth serum Aum injected him with to discover the whereabouts of his moneyed sister, who escaped the cult and went into hiding. Hirata allegedly drove the lookout car during the abduction.

He is also charged for his alleged role in a 1995 condominum explosion in Suginami Ward, Tokyo, and for throwing a firebomb into Aum's Minami Aoyama headquarters in Shibuya Ward to fake an attack on the cult the same day — a day before Aum attacked several subway lines with sarin on March 20.

Kikuchi, who was arrested for murder and attempted murder in connection with the subway gassing, reportedly admitted she was involved in producing the deadly gas but claimed she did not know what it was at the time.

But critics say that since previous testimonies of other Aum members indicate Kikuchi was only an assistant to senior followers who manufactured the narcotics used in the cult's initiation rituals and deadly VX gas, her connection with the sarin production remains unclear. As of Thursday, prosecutors were still interrogating Kikuchi.

Meanwhile, Takahashi, who was a senior Aum follower, was arrested for murder and attempted murder in connection with the subway gassing and Kariya's fatal abduction. Takahashi allegedly helped pull Kariya into the car and drove one of the cultists who released sarin on the Hibiya Line.

Takahashi could go to prison for a long time, but it's unclear whether he is eligible for the death penalty.

In the meantime, authorities may have to postpone the hangings of the condemned cultists because they could be needed as witnesses in the trials of the trio. Legal analysts say the pretrial process for determining the points of argument could take months or even years.

Hirata's alleged involvement in the bombings is likely to earn him a lay judge trial, which would make him the first Aum defendant to be tried by a mixed panel of lay and professional judges. Depending on the charges, Kikuchi and Takahashi could also be tried under the new system, which began in May 2009.

Lawyer Takayuki Aoki, a professor at Surugadai University Law School and an expert on the lay judge system, said the trials of the three will present many challenges, largely because the other followers have already been sentenced and the lay judges will have to reach their own verdicts independently of that massive information and media deluge to ensure a fair trial.

"It's such a high-profile case, and both professional and lay judges will likely be exposed to some of the information about Aum and its organized crimes. It will be difficult to find people who have no knowledge of Aum and ask them whether Hirata is guilty," said the former judge.

How much the court will take the other Aum trials into account and how fair the sentencing will be, assuming the trio are convicted, are among the other challenging issues expected, he said.

Aum splintered and changed its name to Aleph in 2000 but continues to operate under Asahara's teachings. A report by the Public Safety Intelligence Agency shows there are some 1,500 Aleph followers in Japan and it gained 200 new ones last year.

The rise in numbers shows more people, especially in the younger generation, are not aware of what Aum did in the past and find its brand of spiritualism attractive, Arita of DPJ said. He stressed the need to educate people on the dangers of joining cults, since anyone faces the risk of being subtly brainwashed.

"For example, the Great East Japan Earthquake would probably be phrased as Armageddon in the words of Aum, and that resonates with some people," he said.

"This society has treated cults as special groups, and that hasn't changed even after 17 years. But we must face this with the understanding that it could happen to our sons and daughters, siblings and relatives," he said.

Arita lamented that politicians have not taken this threat seriously.

"I've been pushing to introduce such education in schools at the Diet, but unless other politicians act, this will not move forward," he said.

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