TOKYO — More than two decades after poison gas attacks in Tokyo's subways killed 13, the stage has shifted to the execution of 13 people convicted in the crime. When they will be sent to the gallows, though, remains a mystery in Japan's highly secretive death penalty system.
The Supreme Court rejected an appeal in the final case last week, so the condemned are no longer needed as potential trial witnesses. The court upheld a life sentence for Katsuya Takahashi, a driver in the attack who was convicted of murder in 2015. He was a follower of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the attack.
"The end of the trials, which took so long, is a fresh reminder of the horror of all the crimes committed by Aum," Shizue Takahashi, the wife of a subway stationmaster who died in the attack, told reporters Friday. "Now the focus for the families of the victims and other people will shift to the executions."
Shoko Asahara, the guru of Aum Shinrikyo, and 12 others have been sentenced to death. Whether any will be hanged this year is unknown. Japan generally announces executions only after they have happened.
Cult members released sarin nerve gas in subway cars during the morning rush hour in March 1995, sending people fleeing to the streets and sickening more than 6,000. First-aid stations were set up in tents, and military troops in gas masks and hazmat suits were sent in. The scenes shocked a country where the crime rate is relatively low and people usually take their personal safety for granted.
"We should remember that it was not a crime by a group of weird young people, but it showed that anyone could be an assailant," said Shoko Egawa, a journalist who covered the cult's criminal activities from early on.
The attack was intended to disrupt a police investigation into the group, which had already been suspected of other illegal activities. The cult had amassed an arsenal of chemical, biological and conventional weapons in anticipation of an apocalyptic showdown with the government.
Cult guru Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was captured two months after the attack. His round face framed by wavy long hair and a scraggly beard, he rarely spoke during an eight-year trial, except for occasional incoherent remarks in English at the start. Now 62 years old, he has been on death row for nearly 14 years since being sentenced in 2004.
Aum Shinrikyo, which means Supreme Truth, once claimed 10,000 members in Japan and 30,000 in Russia. It has disbanded, though about 2,000 believers follow its rituals in two splinter groups. Authorities continue to monitor them.
Of the 122 people on death row in Japan, more than 90 are appealing their sentences. Retrials are rarely granted, and filing an appeal does not protect one from the gallows. Four people were executed last year.
In 2016, the Japan Federation of Bar Associations called on the government to abolish executions by 2020, when Japan hosts the Summer Olympics. Japan and the U.S. are the only G-7 countries that maintain the death penalty. Last year, Mongolia became the 105th nation to end the practice, according to Amnesty International.
Mari Yamaguchi And Ken Moritsugu, The Associated Press