Japanese cult leader and subway attacker Shoko Asahara executed

Asahara and six other members of Aum Shinrikyo cult, which gassed Tokyo subway in 1995, hanged

Aum Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara, photographed in 1990: was described as a malignant Pied Piper, a half-blind guru who claimed to have supernatural powers, including the ability to float above the ground. Photograph: EPA

Aum Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara, photographed in 1990: was described as a malignant Pied Piper, a half-blind guru who claimed to have supernatural powers, including the ability to float above the ground. Photograph: EPA

 

Japan’s government has executed the man who masterminded the deadly 1995 chemical attack on Tokyo’s subway system, formally ending one of the nation’s grimmest post-war chapters.

Shoko Asahara (63) was hanged on Friday morning along with six other leading members of Aum Shinrikyo, the apocalyptic religion he founded in 1989.

The sarin nerve-gas attack killed 13 people, poisoned over 6,000 and terrorised a city that prided itself on its safety and low-crime. The victims included Irishman Michael Kennedy, who survived.

Justice minister Yoko Kamikawa, who ordered the cultists sent to the gallows on Friday morning, reeled off their litany of crimes in a televised press conference later that afternoon.

They included the attempted assassination of a journalist, the gassing of a residential neighbourhood in 1994 that killed seven people and the strangling of a lawyer who had been helping parents to free their brainwashed children from the cult’s control. The lawyer’s wife and their toddler were also murdered.

“These were unprecedented and indiscriminate crimes that can never be allowed to happen again,” said Kamikawa. “Twenty-seven precious lives were taken [by the cult] and many more harmed.”

Ms Kamikawa took no questions on the controversial use of the death penalty – Japan is the only developed country apart from the US that retains it. By killing the cultists, said some, the nation had lost the chance to understand what motivated Asahara and the zealots who followed his commands.

Asahara, born Chizuo Matsumoto, was described as a malignant Pied Piper, a half-blind guru who claimed to have supernatural powers, including the ability to float above the ground. Before the gas attack, Aum claimed 40,000 followers. Asahara told them he was the reincarnation of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction and regeneration.

Helicopter plot

During his trial, prosecutors dismissed claims by Asahara’s family and defence team that he had lost control over his followers. The trial heard details of a plot to use the cult’s helicopters to dump 70 tons of sarin over Tokyo, one of the world’s most crowded cities.

His fate was effectively sealed in January when the supreme court rejected an appeal by Katsuya Takahashi, the last of the cultists to go on trial. That ruling ended more than two decades of legal work to bring about 190 people associated with Aum to justice.

The six others executed on Friday were Yoshihiro Inoue (48), Tomomitsu Niimi (54), Tomomasa Nakagawa (55), Kiyohide Hayakawa (68), Masami Tsuchiya (53), and Seiichi Endo (58). Six other members of the cult remain on death row. The hangings are being staggered probably to avoid the appearance of a mass execution.

Asahara was on death row for nearly 14 years and ended his life babbling, incontinent and cut off from his family and lawyers. He never publicly explained his actions or offered an apology to the victims.

The cult has splintered into three groups with over 1,600 members in Japan. Police and neighbours constantly monitor the headquarters of the largest splinter group, Aleph, which occupies a building in Tokyo’s western suburbs.

Hisashi Mizukami, a local resident who has demanded the group leave the area, welcomed the hangings but said he feared the result. “We don’t know what the remaining members might do,” he said.