Closing the Book on Aum?

Japan’s Supreme Court has upheld its conviction of the last top Aum official tied to the Tokyo subway sarin attack.

A few months back, I outlined the continued legacy of the notorious Japanese cult, Aum Shinrikyo. Sixteen years have passed since the group, led by its eccentric leader Shoko Asahara, shocked Japan with its bold sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995. The attack resulted in the deaths of 12 people, injured hundreds of others and shook Japan’s image as a country free of terrorism.

This week, Japan attempted to exorcise this painful history, with the Supreme Court upholding its conviction of the last senior Aum official, Seiichi Endo. Supreme Court Justice Seishi Kanetsuki condemned the cult as “extremely antisocial and showed outrageous disregard for human life.” The court ruling also acknowledged that despite Endo being innocent of perpetrating specific attacks, he remained criminally responsible for “misuse of his scientific knowledge in connection with the crimes.” Endo has been sentenced to death, making him the thirteenth member of Aum to be sent to death row.

Endo’s conviction is significant for a couple reasons. First, it represents the symbolic end of a nearly two decade-long set of trial proceedings against Aum. Since the Tokyo attack, there have been criminal proceedings against 189 members of the cult, all except one of which resulted in convictions. Endo’s conviction marks the final trial against senior Aum officials, and thus has been hailed by Japanese officials as the end of a tragic era.

The conviction is also noteworthy because Endo, unlike Aum leaders Asahara and Fumihiro Joyu, was a not a prominent figure in the group’s operations. Endo was a scientist who studied medicine at the prestigious Kyoto University. However, during the trial he was determined to have helped Aum manufacture the sarin gas used in multiple incidents including the Tokyo subway attack.

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Aum used several different chemicals in its attacks, such as the nerve agent sarin, phosgene, and VX gas. In its early attacks, before 1995, Aum largely targeted attorneys, judges and journalists who were seen as sympathetic to the group’s victims. Prosecutors linked Endo to one such incident from May 1994, when Aum members tried to kill an attorney by releasing sarin gas outside of a local courthouse in Tokyo. One month later, in June 1994, Aum launched its most devastating attack up to that point by releasing sarin gas in Matsumoto city using a van equipped with a heating pot and fan. The Matsumoto attack killed seven civilians, and seriously injured 144 others. Endo was found by Japanese security officials at the scene of the attack. The attacks were targeted at judges who were presiding over a fraud case in which several Aum members had been charged.

So, does this close the book on Japan’s prolific cult? Not completely. After the Tokyo subway attack, Aum divided itself into two interconnected groups. The predominant group was named Aleph, while a splinter group also was established called Hikari no Wa (Circle of Rainbow Light). The Public Security Intelligence Agency (PSIA) and local police continue to blanket the group’s descendants with the backing of a Subversive Organizations Control Act that has been in effect for the past decade. The legislation allows PSIA to conduct intrusive raids on Aum safe houses and maintain heavy surveillance on Aum-owned properties. But the legislation authorizing such raids is set to expire in 2012, which could significantly inhibit Japan’s ability to monitor the group. Even as one chapter closes with Endo’s conviction, another one now opens as lawmakers debate the need to keep a watchful eye on Aum.