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Timing of AUM mass executions questioned; possible link to end of Heisei era

AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is seen in Fujinomiya, Shizuoka Prefecture, on Oct. 22, 1990. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The executions of AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara, who masterminded the 1995 sarin nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo subway system and other murders, and six former high-ranking cult members on July 6 raised questions about why they were hanged at this point of time. The timing has prompted speculation that the government attempted to draw the curtain on the deadliest terror case of the Heisei era before the term's closure next year.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa stopped short of clarifying the reason behind the timing during a press conference following the executions, just saying, "We gave a great deal of careful consideration (before the executions)." Asahara, 63, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, and six others that were hanged that morning were among the 13 death-row inmates whose sentences were finalized over the series of AUM-related crimes, which left up to 29 people dead and over 6,000 injured.

Interviews with concerned sources have raised the possibility that the government chose to move ahead with the executions before the Heisei era, which ushered in 1989 with Emperor Akihito's accession to the Chrysanthemum Throne, comes to a close upon his abdication in late April next year.

The criminal trials of AUM-related cases involving 189 individuals -- including the 13 death-row inmates -- were finalized in November 2011, when the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by death-row inmate and former senior cult member Seiichi Endo. Shortly after the conclusion of the trials, the Justice Ministry tried to begin consideration of procedures for the executions of the 13 death-row inmates, such as transferring them to multiple detention centers across the country from the Tokyo Detention Center. However, the attempt was foiled due to the arrest of Makoto Hirata, a former senior AUM member who was on a nationwide wanted list, after he suddenly turned himself in to police on the night of Dec. 31, 2011. He was arrested the following day on suspicion of involvement in the confinement resulting in the death of a notary public officer and other charges.

The twist of events on New Year's Eve delayed the government plan to promptly hang the 13 death-row inmates. The terms of the Code of Criminal Procedure are interpreted that executions of inmates on death row shall not be carried out while trials of their accomplices continue. Hirata was among those suspected to have conspired with Asahara.

Hirata later admitted during his trial that he turned himself in 16 years after he was placed on a special wanted list because he "wanted to have the executions of former high-ranking members of AUM pushed back." Hirata's trial was attended by three death-row inmates including Tomomasa Nakagawa.

It wasn't until January this year that all AUM-related trials were wrapped up once and for all, when the life sentence handed to former AUM follower Katsuya Takahashi, 60, was finalized -- several years after his arrest in June 2012.

This prompted the Justice Ministry to once again look into transferring the death-row inmates to several detention centers. On March 14 and 15, the ministry sent seven of the 13 inmates to five facilities capable of carrying out executions, leaving Asahara and five others at the Tokyo Detention Center. While a senior ministry official ruled out that the transfers were in preparation for executions, speculation grew among those close to the 13 inmates and victims of AUM crimes that the move was a sign that the executions were imminent.

According to concerned sources, Justice Minister Kamikawa began to secretly scan through documents including those on past AUM trials in early May after the "Golden Week" holiday period ended. Some high-ranking ministry officials also ran various simulations on matters such as whether all accomplices can be executed at the same time and when to seek a final go-ahead from the justice minister. The possible movements of those who still follow Asahara were also taken into consideration.

Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa speaks to reporters, following the execution of AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara and six of his followers, on July 6, 2018, in Tokyo. (Mainichi)

As a result, the simultaneous executions of all the 13 death-row inmates were omitted from the options, as some of them had filed their first requests for retrial and others were asking to be pardoned. The Justice Ministry tends to avoid executing death-row inmates who have filed their first retrial requests.

Their roles in AUM incidents also ranged from one inmate to the other. Factors such as the capacity of detention centers for carrying out executions in terms of equipment and security levels also raised difficulties for such an option.

The scheduling of the execution date "was as difficult as solving a complicated equation," noted a senior Justice Ministry official. The most crucial factor was the change of the era name scheduled for 2019. The government decided at an Imperial House Council meeting in December last year that Emperor Akihito will abdicate on April 30, 2019, and Crown Prince Naruhito will ascend to the Imperial Throne the following day, with the new era name introduced that day.

"The clock began to tick after the Imperial House Council meeting," said a government source. "It became a proposition that the curtain should be drawn on the most heinous crime of the Heisei era before the term ends."

The next question was when to move ahead with the executions, at a time when days are numbered before the turn of the era. The year 2019 was obviously not a plausible option because the change of the era name, which is considered to be a celebratory occasion, will be looming. Meanwhile, the leadership election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party is also scheduled for this autumn, raising the possibility that Kamikawa may be replaced after her second stint as justice minister, which began in August last year. Some called for reservations about carrying out executions during the ordinary session of the Diet as opposition parties could denounce the government saying it is attempting to obscure favoritism scandals involving two school operators. Therefore, the possible date for the executions was narrowed down to either in July, after the Diet session was over, or in December.

It was later decided that the Diet session would be extended by about a month to July 22, but a government source admitted that this didn't affect the planned doomsday for the ex-cultists. "We didn't have enough time to postpone the execution date," the source confided. While Kamikawa was reputed to be relatively cautious about implementing the death penalty, she had reportedly become inclined to believe by late June that the executions were inevitable.

Kamikawa is believed to have selected the seven to be executed after reviewing their positions and roles within the cult as well as the crimes they were involved in, among other factors. After all necessary procedures were settled, she signed the order for the executions on July 3, three days before the execution date. On July 6, more than 100 reporters packed the press conference room at the Justice Ministry to barrage her with questions about the mass executions. "Why did you choose to execute them at this point in time?" one reporter asked, while others questioned, "How did you select those to be executed?" and "How will your ministry deal with the anxiety of the remaining six death-row inmates who weren't executed this time?" To all these questions, however, the justice minister remained silent.

(Japanese original by Takeshi Wada, Ichiro Ito and Takashi Sakamoto, City News Department)

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