Seven members of the cult responsible for the 1995 Tokyo Metro sarin gas attacks—including cult leader Shoko Asahara and six accomplices—were executed in Tokyo on Friday, July 6. The question on everyone’s mind is, “Why now?”
Japan has maintained the practice of not carrying out the executions of convicted criminals while accomplices are still at large or on trial. The last hurdle was cleared last January with the conclusion of the trial of Katsuya Takahashi, an accomplice of Asahara and other condemned criminals in the sarin gas subway attacks.
Subsequently, in March this year, seven of the 13 death row convicts were moved from a Tokyo detention center to five detention centers with execution facilities. It appeared that preparations were underway to carry out the executions.
At a special press conference held on July 6, Minister of Justice Yoko Kawakami was asked about the selection of the convicts to be executed. She repeatedly said she would “refrain from commenting.”
The cult’s 1994-1995 sarin gas attacks and other murders terrorized the Tokyo region. Thirteen victims died in the 1995 gas attacks alone, and several thousand were injured, including 54 victims with serious injuries.
Although no specific explanation has been articulated for the timing of the executions, there are several factors which may have played a role, in addition to conclusion of the trials of the accomplices.
Next year is full of official imperial events, including the abdication of the Emperor at the end of April 2019, followed by a series of events for the accession of the Crown Prince and the naming of a new era. A Ministry of Justice official expressed the point of view that “executions should be avoided during such an auspicious year.”
The following year brings the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Kyoto. From a diplomatic standpoint, executions during a year with such large international events and many visitors from countries opposed to the death penalty, such as European nations, was also considered to be inopportune.
Consequently, according to a government official, the Ministry of Justice maintained its stance on carrying out the executions within this year.
Another factor affecting timing may be the upcoming presidential election in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party in September, which raises the possibility of replacement of the Minister of Justice. Rather than risk an incoming minister that may be reluctant to allow executions, the Ministry of Justice may have moved ahead under the current Minister of Justice, Yoko Kawakami, based on her prior record of issuing execution orders for three convicts.
The timetable also takes into consideration the schedule for upcoming regular government ministry personnel rotations in late July and the Prime Minister’s scheduled overseas travel from July 11. (The Prime Minister’s travel was subsequently canceled to allow Mr. Abe to oversee recovery efforts in the region devastated by recent flooding and mudslides.)
The seven cult members who were executed were not selected according to the incidents they were involved in, nor in order of court decisions. Asahara and other convicts may have been in the process of petitioning for review, but, if so, this was also not taken into account.
However, all seven cult members, including mastermind Asahara, were leaders in the cult. Each of the executed convicts served as a leader within the cult’s pseudo-national system of ministries, with Kiyohide Hayakawa at the top of the so-called construction ministry and fellow convict Tomomitsu Niimi as the head of the cult’s ministry of internal affairs.
According to a top official in Japan’s Ministry of Justice, simultaneous executions of all 13 Aum death row inmates were “impossible based on available facilities.” Thus, executions of the cult leaders who played key roles in the sarin gas and other crimes were carried out first.
Concerns about the cult did not end with the death of the seven leaders. An official of the Public Security Intelligence Agency, commenting on precautions against additional terrorist attacks or other unforeseen incidents, pointed out, “With the deification of Asahara, his remains and personal effects will be of importance in proving the legitimacy of any succeeding organization.”
He further cautioned that “we must be on the lookout for internal conflict,” referring to any signs of a struggle over his remains.
In 2000, the cult planned a series of terrorist bombings in Japan aimed at rescuing Asahara, who had already been convicted and was on death row. These exposed the Russians attempting to provide automatic weapons for the plan.
In recent years, on-site inspections of Aleph, successor organization to the Aum Shinrikyo cult, have been carried out by the Public Security Intelligence Agency. These have uncovered educational materials on the Tantra-Vajrayana, a doctrine used by Asahara to encourage murders, leading police officials to warn that, “the dangerous character of the group continues to persist”.
(Click here to read the original article in Japanese.)