Japan executes doomsday cult leader Shoko Asahara and six members

The former leader of the doomsday cult that carried out a fatal gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995 was executed on Friday .

Shoko Asahara, who masterminded the attack in which 13 people died and more than 6,000 others fell ill, was hanged at a detention centre.Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, confirmed Asahara’s execution. The justice ministry later confirmed that six other senior cult members were executed on the same day.

“I think it’s right that he was executed,” said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband, a subway worker, died after removing one of the sarin packages.

“My husband’s parents and my parents are already dead,” she added. “I think they would find it regrettable that they could not have heard the news of this execution.”

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Kiyoe Iwata, whose daughter died in the attack, said the news had given her peace of mind. “I have always been wondering why it had to be my daughter and why she had to be killed,” she told public broadcaster NHK. ”Now I can visit her grave and tell her this news.”Asahara’s execution was the first of 13 former Aum members who have been condemned to death.

His Aum Supreme Truth cult, which combined a bizarre mix of Buddhist and Hindu meditation along with Christian and apocalyptic teachings, yoga and the occult, once boasted more than 10,000 followers in Japan and an estimated 30,000 in Russia.

Its members included graduates of Japan’s best universities, who were attracted by promises that they would survive the coming Armageddon – a nuclear attack by the US – by developing sarin, a nerve agent invented by the Nazis, at the cult’s compound in the foothills of Mount Fuji.

Asahara, whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto, had also been found guilty of masterminding a 1994 attack on a city in northern Japan in which eight people died and more than 100 were injured.The former cult leader had exhausted all of his appeals after he was sentenced to death in 2004.

The Tokyo subway gas attack began shortly before 8am on 20 March 1995, when five members of the cult punctured plastic bags containing liquid sarin with the sharpened tips of their umbrellas before fleeing.

As the gas spread inside packed subway carriages, commuters started to cough and struggle for breath. Some of those who made it on to platforms and upstairs to street level collapsed, foaming at the mouth and coughing up blood.

Survivors recalled smelling something that resembled paint thinner before starting to cough uncontrollably. “Liquid was spread on the floor in the middle of the carriage, people were convulsing in their seats. One man was leaning against a pole, his shirt open, bodily fluids leaking out,” Sakae Ito, who was inside on one of the carriages, told Agence France-Presse.

TV footage showed members of self-defence forces, dressed in hazmat suits and full face masks, descending flights of stairs, still unaware of what had caused the incident.

The attack was the worst terrorist incident on Japanese soil and rocked the country’s faith in its reputation for public safety.

Asahara eluded arrest for two months until he was discovered hiding in a tiny space concealed behind a wall, along with piles of cash and a sleeping bag, at the cult’s compound.

Aum was banned but resurfaced in 2000 as Aleph, whose members claimed they had disowned Asahara and agreed to pay compensation to the gas attack victims.

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There have been claims, however, that some continue to follow Asahara’s teachings and keep photographs of him and audio recordings of his voice for inspiration.

Several dozen members living at Aleph’s headquarters, three ageing apartment blocks in suburban Tokyo, are kept under 24-hour surveillance.

Born in 1955 on the southwestern island of Kyushu, Asahara, who was virtually blind, was regarded as a charismatic leader who began to draw recruits to Aum, which had originally started as a yoga school, in the 1980s.

BIZARRE RITUALS AND WEAPONS

Asahara, 63, a pudgy, partially blind yoga instructor, was sentenced to hang in 2004 on 13 charges, including the subway gas attacks and other crimes that killed at least a dozen people.

He pleaded not guilty and never testified, but muttered and made incoherent remarks in court during the eight years of his trial. The sentence was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2006.

In all, 13 cult members were sentenced to death during more than 20 years of trials, which came to an end in January 2018.

Asahara, who founded Aum in 1987, said that the United States would attack Japan and turn it into a nuclear wasteland. He also said he had traveled forward in time to 2006 and talked to people then about what World War Three had been like.

At its peak, the cult had at least 10,000 members in Japan and overseas, including graduates of some of Japan’s top universities.

Some members lived in a commune-like complex Asahara established at the foot of Mount Fuji, where the group studied his teachings, practiced bizarre rituals and gathered an arsenal of weapons – including sarin.

The cult also used sarin in 1994, releasing the gas in the central city of Matsumoto on a summer night in an attempt to kill three judges set to rule on it.

That attack, which involved a refrigerator truck releasing the gas to be dispersed by the wind through a neighborhood, failed to kill the judges but killed eight other people and injured hundreds.

A vengeful Asahara started targeting members of the public after he and 24 other Aum members unsuccessfully ran in upper house elections in 1990, according to prosecutors.

Aleph and two smaller splinter groups have about 1,650 followers in Japan and about 460 in Russia, and hold more than 1 billion yen (US$9m) in assets, Kyodo news said, citing data from Japan’s public security intelligence agency.

Human rights campaigners condemned the use of the death penalty against Aum members.

Amnesty International said Friday’s executions “do not deliver justice.”

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