TRIALS OF AUM SHINROKYO CULT MEMBERS AND FATE OF THE CULT AFTER THE SARIN GAS ATTACK

TRIALS OF AUM SHINROKYO CULT MEMBERS


Aum/ Adelph in 2007
The sarin attack remains the worst terrorist attack on Japanese soil. A total of 189 former senior members of the cult and others were indicted, and all except one were found guilty. A total of 13 cult members were sentenced to death for involvement in either the sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto or on the Tokyo subway system, or the murder of the Sakamoto family. No one has been executed. There is strong opinion within the ministry that the death penalty for cult leader Matsumoto should be carried out first as he is the mastermind behind the cases.

Five members, including perpetrators of the two sarin gas attacks, were sentenced to life in prison. A further 80 members were given prison sentences of various lengths, and 87 received suspended sentences.

In November 2011 the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Seiichi Endo, a former senior cult member, upholding lower court rulings of the death penalty for his role in various incidents, including the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. When Endo's sentence was officially finalized, it marked the end of all the Aum-related trials that lasted more than 16 years. Seiichi Endo is a former veterinarian and virologist who joined the cult while he was a student at the Graduate School of Medicine at Kyoto University. Endo was involved in spraying deadly sarin gas that killed seven people in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in June 1994. He was also involved in sarin gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995, which killed 12 people.

Endo was at the scene of the Matsumoto incident as a member of the cult's medical team, and manufactured sarin gas used in the attacks on the Tokyo subway system. He also was involved in the attempted murder, using sarin gas and equally deadly VX gas, of two lawyers who were involved in helping some aum believers withdraw from the cult, as well as investigations into the 1989 murder of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and their son, according to a Japanese court ruling.

Raids on Aum Shinrokyo Facilities

On March 22, some 2,500 police officers began making raids at 25 Aum Shinrokyo facilities located around the country. More than one thousand police descended on the Aum Shinrokyo commune in the Mt. Fuji foothills.

Hours before the raid, Asahara broadcast a two-minute appeal to followers, saying "The time has come for you to help me" and signed off with the plea, "Let's die without any regrets." In a video at the cult's 36 branches, Asahara said he had been the target of a poison gas attack orchestrated by the United States.

Police approached the main facilities at the Mt. Fuji commune with caged canaries to detect poison gas. Inside the commune investigators found 50 malnourished cult members laying on blankets in small cubicles. The members said they were fasting voluntarily. Malnourished members were taken to the hospital.

Investigators found "several tens of liters" of sarin gas in a secret laboratory. Only 10 liters were used in the subway attacks. Most of the poison gas was reportedly destroyed to cover up the evidence. The raids uncovered a Russian-made military helicopter, 22 pounds of gold, stacks of cash worth $7.9 million, gun parts, chemicals used to make explosives and evidence of biological weapons.

The chemical lab at the Mt. Fuji commune was hidden behind an enormous Styrofoam relief of the Hindu god Shiva. Over the next several weeks, police discovered tons of chemicals such as sodium cyanide, sodium fluoride, isopropyl alcohol and acetonitrile, which one newspaper estimated could produce enough poison gas to kill 4.2 million people. People living around the commune had reported leaves suddenly turning brown on trees and strange odors.

Investigating Aum Before the Sarin Gas Attack

Tatsuo Kainaka, who led investigations on Aum-related crimes as deputy chief prosecutor at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office before becoming a Supreme Court justice, told the Yomiuri Shimbun: “Nobody imagined a religious organization would try to destroy the government. There was no law to punish production of sarin. The existing laws were insufficient. At one point, for example, we discovered that a senior cult member had driven a car carrying automatic rifle parts to a condominium parking lot. However, we weren't sure which law could be applied. The Firearms and Swords Control Law prohibits possession of parts of handguns but not parts of automatic rifles. As a last-ditch measure, we applied a section of the Penal Code prohibiting unlawful entry to buildings. We accused the cult member of acting to the detriment of residents of the condominium by bringing automatic rifle parts onto its premises.

After senior members of the cult kidnapped Mr. Kiyoshi Kariya, a notary public, in February 1995, we received many tips that Aum was making illegal materials such as firearms and sarin. We realized we would have to conduct an unprecedentedly large investigation if we were to crack down on all those activities. We also had to make careful preparations, including countermeasures to protect police officers against toxic gas. We were in the middle of these preparations when Aum launched the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995.

Five days before the March 20 attack, there was a sign it was coming. An attache case left at Kasumigaseki subway station spewed out vapor, but our raid was too late. It was very regrettable. I think we investigative authorities were slow in collecting information about Aum in every sense. For example, we found the cult had established a central government-like organization with its founder at the center, which included a "science and technology ministry" and an "intelligence ministry." We learned this only after we seized floppy disks and other documents from an Aum member who was arrested in Shiga Prefecture after the subway attack.

To tell the truth, we actually had a chance to crack down on Aum five years before the attack. Kazuaki Okazaki, on death row for his involvement in murdering the family of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, offered a deal to the Kanagawa prefectural police in 1990, one year after he committed the crime. Okazaki, who later changed his surname to Miyamoto, sent the police a map indicating where the victims were buried and suggesting he would confess everything about the case in exchange for commuting his sentence.

However, Japan has no legal system for things like plea bargaining and immunity. If we did, Aum founder and death-row inmate Chizuo Matsumoto and other senior members might have been arrested much earlier and their later crimes prevented.

Kainaka started his career as a public prosecutor in 1966. As deputy chief prosecutor in the Tokyo district office between 1994 and 1996, he led investigations of aum-related cases. He served as a Supreme Court justice for about seven years from 2002.

Arrest of Aum Shinrokyo Cult Members

Police were warned in advance that Aum was going to launch the subway attack but botched their effort to stop it. They then took six weeks to round up and arrest the perpetrators. Aum was protected by the Religious Corporation Act which made it difficult for authorities to investigate illegal activities by religious groups.

Authorities arrested 428 cult members on various charges. On April 26, police arrest Masami Tsuchiya from an underground compartment in Aum Shinrokyo's Mount Fuji commune. A doctoral student in organic chemistry, he was is in charge of the cult's experiments with chemicals. The criminal investigation leading to Asahara's arrest was the largest in Japanese history.

On May 15, police arrest Yoshihiro Inoue, a Aum Shinrokyo leader suspected of orchestrating the subway attack. On May 16, police launch simultaneous nationwide raids, armed with murder arrest warrants for Asahara and 41 members connected with the Tokyo subway attacks. Asahara and 13 others were taken into custody. Television ratings for the live broadcasts from the raid were among the highest ever.

Asahara was found hiding in a box, slightly larger than a coffin, concealed behind a walls in Station No. 6, a warehouse building in Aum’s Mt. Fuji commune. The police searched the compound for hours before discovering the hiding place by taping on a wall, discovering a hollow spot and sawing their way through wallboard.

When the police found him, Asahara was dressed on pink pajamas and possessed a cassette player, some medicine and $106,000 in cash. He had apparently been sealed in the box by followers the day before when it became clear that the police were going to raid the commune. The polices asked him, "Are you Shoko Asahara?." He replied, "Yes, I am." They asked him, "What are you doing here?" He said, "I've been here for two days meditating and recuperating."

When police tried to remove him Asahara said, "I'll come out myself. No one, not even my followers, is allowed to touch me." When he was later asked if he was involved in the subway poison attack he said, "Could a blind man do such a thing? But I suppose you won't believe me."

Trial of Aum Members

Charges were brought against 22 other members of the cult, including senior member Tomomitsu Niimi, charged with murder; cult physician Tomomasa Nakagawa, suspected of committing homicide and regarded as the No. 2 man in the cult; heart surgeon Ikuo Hyashi, killer of an Aum enemy; Yoshihiro Inoue, organizer of the Tokyo subway gas attack; and Masimi Tsuchiya, who reportedly confessed to producing sarin gas.

Some of the members admitted to their crimes but claimed they had been brainwashed by the cult. Much of the evidence presented at the trial was based on the testimonies of Kiyohide Hayakawa, a senior member of the cult, and Dr. Ikuo Hayashi, the cult's chief medical officer. Hayashi confessed that he was one of 10 operatives who placed the sarin on the trains. He said the order for the attack came specifically from Asahara. Later Hayashi made a public statement to other cult members, encouraging them to give up. "We will definitely not wake up the country through violent means," he said. "We haven't achieved anything."

Shoko Asahara's Trial


60 Minutes piece
Asahara was indicted in June, 1995 on 17 charges, including 23 counts of murder of 25 people and attempted murder in connection with the sarin gas attacks and Nagano murders. Asahara claimed entered a plea of not guilty, insisting that all the allegations against him were carried out his followers not him.

Hearing in the Asahara trial began in April1996 after a delay of six months because Asahara fired his lawyer and refused to enter a plea. In April 1997 he entered pleas on not guilty to nearly all the charges. The trial formally began in January 1998. To speed the trial the charges were reduced from 17 to 13. People waiting in long lines in hopes of getting a ticket to see the trial.

Asahara was represented initially by a team of nine government-appointed lawyers. His defense team argued he didn't directly order the killings and couldn't have participated in the deaths because he can't see. During is courtroom appearances, Asahara sat in chains and often appeared to be asleep. The only noises he made were loud yawns, presumably to express how bored he was with the whole thing. Sometimes he blamed his disciples and interrupted their testimony with incoherent remarks. Once he pulled his hair out of his head and let it fall. Devotees consider his hair to be sacred.

Asahara was placed in solitary confinement in prison while on trial. He fasted every other day, and lost 42 pounds. Describing his cell, he said, "The concrete is so thick, it is like a cave. I'm getting a great chance to meditate." In the early stages of the trial Asahara occasionally made some incoherent statements. Beginning in 1997 he kept silent and refused to talk anyone even to his lawyers. When prosecutors attempted to question him he sat silent on the stand and ignored them. The closing arguments made by Asahara’s defense team of 11 lawyers was 814 pages long. Asahara ignored the proceedings.

Asahara was sentenced to death in February 2004 after being found guilty of masterminding 13 crimes, including the sarin gas attack in Tokyo. More than 4,600 people lined for the 38 seats in the courtroom open to the public. Asahara was dressed in a black sweatshirt and pants. His hair was short. His response was minimal. He smirked and groaned a little, and yawed and grinned as he awaited the ruling. In September 2006, Japan’s Supreme Court rejected Asahara’s final appeal, judging he had been competent to face trial, finalizing his death sentences and ending the trial after 10 years and five months.

Sentences of Aum Shinrokyo Cult Members

Twelve cult members, including Asahara were sentenced to death. They included senior member Kazuaki Okazaki, who took park in the brutal killing of Sakamoto, his wife and child but didn't express deep remorse; Tomomasa Nakagawa, regarded as the No. 2 man in the cult; Masimi Tsuchiya, who reportedly confessed to producing sarin gas; and Kiyohide Hayakawa, who received his sentence for his role into two murder cases, including the 1989 murder of a lawyer and his family.

Cult members Masato Yokohama, Yasuo Hayashi, Toru Toyada and Kenichi Hirose were sentenced to death for their role in the sarin gas attacks. In July 2004, the Tokyo High Court upheld the sentences. Senior cult member Sauro Hashimoto was also sentenced to death.

Tomoko Matsumoto, wife of Aum founder, was give seven years. She was present at some meetings where death for rebellious members was discussed. She was released from prison in October 2002 after completing six year in prison. Aum doctor Ikuo Hayshi, who brought poison to the subway stations but expressed regret for his actions was given life in prison. Shigeo Sugimoto, a driver for the cult, who was also involved with the gas attack, received life in prison.

After 16 Years the Aum Trials Finally End in November 2011 as Death Penalty of the Sarin Chemist is Finalized

In November 2011 the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “The Supreme Court rejected an appeal by Seiichi Endo, a former senior cult member, upholding lower court rulings of the death penalty for his role in various incidents, including the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. When Endo's sentence was officially finalized, it marked the end of all the Aum-related trials that lasted more than 16 years. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, November 22, 2011]

Endo is the 13th member of the cult to have a death sentence finalized. Endo was given the death penalty by lower courts for conspiring with Aum founder Shoko Asahara and playing a central role in the sarin nerve gas attacks in Nagano Prefecture in 1994 and on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.

"The crimes were committed in an organized and systematic manner, to defend the cult and as a challenge to a law-abiding nation," presiding Justice Seishi Kanetsuki of the Supreme Court's No. 1 Petty Bench said in the ruling. "They were extremely antisocial and showed outrageous disregard for human life. Although he himself was not a perpetrator of the crimes, the criminal responsibility of the defendant, who misused his scientific knowledge in connection with the crimes, was extremely serious," the ruling said.

"Even though after the Matsumoto incident he knew using sarin gas could have terrible and serious consequences, he actively involved himself in sarin production [for use in the attacks on the Tokyo subway system], put sarin into small packages and gave them to accomplices," the ruling said. "He offered words of apology to the bereaved families of the victims and confessed to producing sarin gas at an early stage of investigations, but even when such factors are taken into consideration, capital punishment cannot be avoided." Endo's defense lawyers had urged the court not to uphold the death penalty ruling. They claimed Endo had been brainwashed by Matsumoto, who is already on death row, and was in a state of diminished capacity at the time of the offenses.

Why did the trials take so long? The trial of Matsumoto highlighted this problem, with the district court alone spending nearly eight years to rule after his trial opened in April 1996. The major reason for this was an apparent tactic used by his defense council to prolong the trial. The lawyers constantly asked irrelevant questions on points of contention during the trial. Meanwhile, Matsumoto often made rambling remarks and, at times, was ordered to leave the courtroom. In light of this, procedures to reduce points of contention have started to be taken before trials begin. Currently, a lay judge system has been put into practice, and speeding up the trial process is an issue the entire judicial profession should address. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 23, 2011]

The Justice Ministry is now expected to be urged to consider carrying out the executions of Matsumoto and other Aum members sentenced to death. Typically, executions are not carried out while trials of accomplices are under way. But the conclusion of the final Aum trial has paved the way for the justice minister to authorize the sentences.

Concerns also remain as two cult members suspected of being involved in the Aum-related crimes are still on the run. One gave himself in December 2011. See Makoto Hirata

Aum Cult Members After the Attack

The number cult members that lived at the Mt. Fuji commune dropped from 600 to 200 within a year after the attack. A watchman at the Mt. Fuji commune told Time, "I don't what they will do to Asahara but if they hang him, nature will move and the gods will protect him. He will return to us in physical form."

One Aum member who was rescued from the cult by his parents and then returned to the cult wrote, "I want to become free. I don’t want to be near my parents. I'm not a criminal...I'm not mind -controlled. At least within Aum, there are respectable people, and I'd like to live an aesthetic life with them...Aum's top-ranking people have committed crimes, but those people are already gone, by taking responsibility. Certainly, the general public will be cold to us like a strong wind, but we'll continue to maintain our faith."

Explaining why he was still a member of the cult one man said in 2000, "We have come to a consensus that Asahara was likely involved in the series of crimes he is charged with. Asahara is a genius in yoga and Buddhists meditation methods, and we will continue to practice those methods inherited from him."

Aum Morphs Into Adelph and Hikari no Wa

The cult appears to remain intact after renaming itself Aleph and some former Aum members organized a group called "Hikari no Wa" (the Circle of Rainbow Light). Aleph and Hikari no Wa have a total of 32 chapters with more than 1,200 members. The Public Security Intelligence Agency conducts inspections of the groups' facilities under the Subversive Organizations Control Law.[Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 23, 2011]

After the sarin gas attack and arrest of Asahara, Aum changed its name to Aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet). Many members quit after the attacks but a surprising number stayed on. Immediately afterwards, Aum-affiliated stores recorded record sales of cult merchandise---T-shirts, stickers, notebooks, handkerchiefs, comic books, videos, audio apes and cookies. A computer equipment sales company run by the cult earned about $65 million a year in the late 1990s.

As of 2012, Aleph maintained activities at 24 facilities in 13 prefectures, including those in Adachi Ward, Tokyo, Sapporo and Ryugasaki, Ibaraki Prefecture. Aleph still displays a picture of cult founder Chizuo Matsumoto in its major facilities, and the members maintain their belief in him, the sources said. Recently, Aleph tried to recruit young people under the pretense that they would be joining a yoga circle, without telling them the organization's name, sources said. Security authorities believe the cult intends to enlarge its influence, and they say they intend to monitor its activities carefully. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2012]

As of 2009, Aleph had 1,300 members. As of 2004, it had about 650 residents of their facilities, 1,000 lay-followers, 25 new members who joined after the 1995 attack. About 65 percent of its members lived in cult housing and the reminder lived in their own homes. Of the 450 original members that finished serving prison terms, 130 returned to the new group. By 2007, membership had fallen to 1,500.

As of 2004, Aleph operated seven major facilities, including their headquarters in a five-story building in Setagaya Ward in Tokyo, 21 smaller facilities and had 120 residential facilities in 17 prefectures for its members. People who live nearby their headquarters have complained about the noise and smells coming from the building. The cult reportedly earned around $5 million from its enterprises and contributions from its members and paid about $1 million a year as compensation to the family members of victims.

Aleph has tried to recruit new members through websites, punk rock concerts and videos and astrology, yoga, computer and martial arts classes, often without identifying themselves.

In October 2004, the leader of an Aum splinter group and three members of the group were arrested for the beating death of a member.

Hikari no Wa Breaks Off from Adelph

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Aleph was headed by Fumihiro Joyu. He was the public face of the cult at the time of the 1995 sarin attack but was cleared of any wrong doing although he later admitted that he lied when he said the group was not involved in attacks when he knew they in fact were. In February 2003, Joyu declared that the cult had broken its ties with Asahara although many members said they were still loyal to the cult’s founder. Some members went to Asahara’s trial because it was their only opportunity to see him.

Member that supported Fumihiro Joyu, a former senior Aum member, broke away from the main group in 2007 and formed a new group called Joyu. This group rejects the teachings of Asahara, and has clashed with anti-Joyu supporter loyal to Asahara. Juyo later changed its name to Hikari no Wa (“Circle of Rainbow Light”) but continued to be led by Fumihiro Juyu. It had about 300 members as of 2009.

Both Aleph and Hikari no Wa (Joyu) have held seminars independent of the other since the end of 2005. Aum and Joyu collected over $1 million in 2007.

According to the Public Security Intelligence Agency, which is monitoring the groups' activities, Aleph and Hikari no Wa have a total of about 1,500 members in 2012, including more than 200 who joined them in 2011. While Aleph still shows its members a video of Matsumoto's preaching, and forces them to submit to the cult leader, Hikari no Wa has abandoned Matsumoto's dogma. Believing both groups still are under the influence of Matsumoto, however, the Public Security Examination Commission in January decided to keep the groups under surveillance for another three years.

Government Crackdown on the Aum Cult

In December 1995, the Japanese government decided to put religious groups under stricter control and strengthened regulations about the what they had to disclose to the government. Aleph’s (Aum’s) tax-free status was removed and the cult was declared bankrupt.

Authorities though about formally disbanding the Aum cult, seizing its assets, subjecting its members to surveillance and jailing anyone attending Aum meetings using the strict 1952 Anti-Subversive Activities Law but never went through with it.

The Public Security Investigation assigned 50 agents to keep tabs on the cult. Members were required to fill out special forms kept by the government. In 1999, police ordered raids of four sites linked with the cult. They found a Geiger counter and a two-story underground concrete bunker. In September 2006 after Asahara’s death sentences with finalized, government security forces raided 25 Aum facilities.

Police have kept up surveillance of Aleph and Hikari no Was.

Harassment of Aum Cult Members

In the years that followed the attack, dozens of municipalities across Japan tried to drive Aum out, in many cases violating the Constitutional rights of the members. Except for a few human rights activists and constitutional lawyers few people have spoken in defense of the group.

In the town of Otawara (80 miles north of Tokyo) Aum purchased land for a new complex. Residents camped in front of the gate of the complex and anytime anyone entered or left the resident shouted through megaphones, "Go away, Aum!" and "We don’t want you here!"

In the village of Kitamimaki, residents built and manned barricades in four shifts 24 hours a day, and built a moat and raised a barbed wire fence to prevent Aum members from moving into a vacant house. When the group tried to enter a violent confrontation occurred.

In other places public money was used to buy up Aum cult property; local governments have denied cult member resident permits which are needed to live in any city; business have refuse to sell goods to cult members; and children of cult members have not been allowed to enroll in schools or play in local parks.

Thirty-two Aum facilities were inspected in 2009.

Locals Worry About Aleph Plans to Set Up Saitama Training Base

In July 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “Aleph, is planning to set up a foothold in Hasuda, Saitama Prefecture, investigative sources said. A person related to the cult recently bought a used building in the city at an auction, and senior Aleph members have been seen entering and leaving the structure, according to the sources. The police and the Public Security Intelligence Agency suspect the group plans to use the building as a training center for its lay followers. [Source: Yomiuri Shimbun, July 4, 2012]

“The three-story reinforced concrete building has a total floor space of about 1,000 square meters and is located in the Kamihirano district of the city. A man who rents a building in Kanagawa Ward, Yokohama to Aleph acquired the Hasuda property for 12 million yen.He subsequently sought an injunction from the Saitama District Court ordering that the building be vacated. The court allowed the man to take over the building in June. The man told The Yomiuri Shimbun, "I took part in the bidding after I was asked by a senior member of Aleph who said the group didn't have much money but needed a big building.” [Ibid]

“Security authorities confirmed senior members and followers of Aleph have been visiting the building since June.An Aleph spokesperson said: "We have a contract with the man over another facility. But we don't have anything concerning a building in Hasuda.” [Ibid]

“Because some residents in the community have voiced concern about the move by Aleph, the municipal government is looking into countermeasures, including enactment of an ordinance that would ban antisocial organizations from setting up a base in the city. "It's highly likely the peaceful life of the residents would be disturbed," Hasuda Mayor Kazunobu Nakano said. "We adamantly oppose the efforts by the cult to move into Hasuda.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated August 2012

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