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Japan executes cult leader and 6 others for deadly 1995 sarin attack

  • Author: Stuart Biggs, Gearoid Reidy, Bloomberg
  • Updated: July 6, 2018
  • Published July 5, 2018

From top left: Aum Shinrikyo cult leader Shoko Asahara and his cult members Tomomasa Nakagawa, Seiichi Endo, and Masami Tsuchiya. Other members from bottom left to right, Yoshihiro Inoue, Tomomitsu Nimi, and Kiyohide Hayakawa. Japan executed the leader and six followers of a doomsday cult Friday, July 6, 2018, for a series of deadly crimes including a sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 13 people in 1995. (Kyodo News via AP, File)

Japan executed Shoko Asahara, the leader of the doomsday cult responsible for the 1995 sarin-gas attack on Tokyo's subway that killed 13 people and sickened thousands.

Asahara, 63, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, was put to death Friday, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga confirmed at a press conference. All death penalties in Japan are carried out by hanging. Japan also executed six other leaders of the cult, local media reported. Suga declined to confirm these reports.

The founder of the sect formerly known as Aum Shinrikyo had also been found guilty in an earlier attack that killed eight people in the city of Matsumoto, and had exhausted all appeals since his 2004 conviction for the crimes.

Born into a poor family of tatami-mat makers, the legally blind Asahara drew thousands of followers into his sect, which prophesied an imminent Armageddon in which its followers would seize power and achieve salvation. On March 20, 1995, Aum members released sarin gas on several Tokyo subway trains during peak commute hours, causing chaos in the capital.

The attack "plunged Japan and the world into deep fear," Presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa said at Asahara's trial in 2004. After failing to get a slate of Aum candidates elected to Japan's parliament in 1990, "Asahara turned to arming the cult and eventually came to desire to rule Japan and become a king."

On June 27, 1994, members sprayed sarin gas from a custom-made vehicle in a residential area of Matsumoto, about 100 miles west of Tokyo. The attack targeted judges who lived in the neighborhood and were involved in a land-dispute case related to the cult.

In addition to the eight people killed, hundreds were injured by the colorless, odorless nerve gas. Developed as a pesticide, sarin can cause symptoms in humans ranging from watery eyes to paralysis and death, depending on the amount of exposure.

The Aum cult was a clear danger to not only to Japan but also to the U.S., a 1995 report by a U.S. Senate subcommittee concluded. The cult had plans to attack senior Japanese government leaders, it said.

In the Tokyo attack, five Aum members carried plastic bags filled with liquid sarin onto trains on the city's Hibiya, Marunouchi and Chiyoda subway lines, which were converging at Kasumigaseki station in the city's government district, and punctured them using the sharpened tips of umbrellas.

The attack caused panic and chaos in the station and throughout Tokyo. Victims of all ages were described as "coughing uncontrollably, vomiting and collapsing in heaps."

More than 180 people were indicted for the attacks. Asahara was arrested in May 1995 and sentenced to death in February 2004 after an eight-year trial. Prosecutors at the time called him the worst criminal in the history of Japan.

Judge Ogawa dismissed defense claims that Asahara had lost control over his followers. While Asahara didn't participate directly in the cult's attacks, it was clear he plotted them, Ogawa said.

Aum members were also found guilty of the 1989 murder of a lawyer who represented victims of the cult, along with his wife and 1-year-old son. Followers of the cult mailed a bomb to the office of Tokyo's governor in 1995, and were investigated for a near-fatal shooting of Japan's top police official.

Japan's Supreme Court rejected a final appeal against Asahara's death sentence in 2006. A 17-year manhunt for the last three remaining suspects in the sarin attacks ended in 2012. Japan discloses little information on its execution process, and it's not uncommon for convicted inmates to spend years or even decades on death row.

Asahara was born on March 2, 1955, in Yatsushiro, Kumamoto prefecture, on Japan's southern island of Kyushu. The sixth of seven children, he left home at a young age to attend schools for the blind after losing his sight to infantile glaucoma.

He failed in attempts to enter Kumamoto and Tokyo universities because a school he had attended didn't prepare him for normal entrance exams.

Asahara, who married in the late 1970s and had six children, turned to studying Buddhism and Hindu theology before preaching both doctrines mixed with his own apocalyptic ideas. His teachings included the idea that murder may spiritually elevate both killer and victim.

Members of the Chiba City Fire Department wearing protective suits participate in a sarin attack drill at the Makuhari Messe convention center in Chiba, Japan, on Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (Bloomberg photo by Tomohiro Ohsumi)

In the mid-1980s, he opened a yoga school. He changed his name to Shoko Asahara and adopted the name Aum Shinrikyo, or Aum Supreme Truth, for his yoga group, which gained government recognition as a religious organization in 1989.

Asahara predicted Japan's government would be brought down by an apocalypse in 1995, allowing Aum to take power. The group hoarded automatic weapons and recruited scientists as members to help develop chemical and biological weapons including sarin, VX, botulism and anthrax, according to Japan's National Police Agency. It also bought a helicopter that it planned to use to disperse sarin gas.

Cult members believed the government sought to suppress Aum and that it was necessary to them to commit indiscriminate mass murder and overthrow the government to meet their goals, the agency said.

In 1990, Aum fielded a slate of candidates for Japan's parliament, including Asahara. None were elected.

By 1995, the group claimed as many as 50,000 members in at least six countries and had assets estimated at more than $1 billion. Aum used drugs to control its members and engaged in kidnapping and murder against its enemies, including people who left the cult, according to the police agency.

Aum made a public apology for its violent acts in 1999 and pledged to compensate victims. The group renamed itself Aleph the following year, renounced violence and said it was no longer under Asahara's leadership.

The organization split into two groups in 2007, according to Japan's Justice Ministry, and further splintered in 2015. The ministry warns that the organizations continue to "strongly retain absolute faith in Asahara," and that Aleph recruits more than 100 members a year.

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