Japan executed the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult and six of his followers Friday for killing 27 people with Sarin gas between 1989 and 1995.
While Shoko Asahara and his followers committed individual murders using nerve agents, their attacks on the Matsumoto and Tokyo subway stations were the first such incidents that alerted Japan to the modern threat of urban terrorism, according to The Associated Press. The Friday hanging of Asahara and six of the twelve cult members sentenced to death row gave some closure to survivors and families of the victims, though Japan remains forever changed by the attacks. (RELATED: Iraq Executes 12 After PM Calls For Immediate Executions)
“The fear, pain and sorrow of the victims, survivors and their families — because of the heinous cult crimes — must have been so severe, and that is beyond my imagination,” said Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa, who approved the hangings Tuesday, according to AP.
Asahara, whose original name was Chizuo Matsumoto, awaited execution on death row for 14 years. Some of those who lost loved ones in his cult’s attacks said they hope his death will give their dead family members some measure of peace.
“This gave me peace of mind,” said Kiyoe Iwata, who lost her daughter in the Tokyo subway attack, according to AP. “I have always been wondering why it had to be my daughter and why she had to be killed. Now, I can pay a visit to her grave and tell her of this.”
Asahara founded Aum Shinrikyo, which translates to Supreme Truth, in 1984. The cult’s belief system mixed elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity and focused on what Asahara prophesied to be the coming Armageddon. Asahara convinced his followers that it was right for one person to kill another who consistently committed evil and was therefore destined to go to Hell. The killing of such a person, he said, benefited both the killer and the killed.
Asahara’s cult attracted many university aged members and even scientists, who later helped the cult develop and synthesize Sarin gas and other weapons. Asahara set up branches of Aum in the U.S., Germany, and Sri Lanka, and claimed over 30,000 followers in Russia. They also had a presence in Taiwan and also Australia, where they tested their chemical weapons.
The cult carried out an attack on the subway in Matsumoto in 1994, killing at least seven people, and another on the subway in Tokyo in 1995, both with Sarin gas.
Cult members also killed a lawyer who opposed the cult, along with his wife and 1-year-old child. They were also known to attack and murder those who tried to leave the cult or those who were deemed apostate cult members.
The cult developed and amassed an array of chemical and biological weapons for their attacks and also planned to amass guns and drugs for what they believed would be a final battle with the government on their version of Judgement Day. Forensic investigation into the Sarin gas attacks showed that the cult’s method of producing the gas was crude and therefore diluted their Sarin solution with byproducts. Had the Sarin gas been more pure, the deaths they caused could have numbered in the thousands.
While the execution of Asahara and some of his followers brought peace of mind to some of the survivors, others affected by the attacks opposed the executions.
“I wanted the others to talk more about what they did as lessons for anti-terrorism measures in this country, and I wanted the authorities and experts to learn more from them,” said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband died in one of the attacks while working as a subway deputy station master, according to AP. “I regret that is no longer possible.”
Three splinter groups of the cult still exist and still practice some of Aum’s rituals, though they are monitored by Japanese authorities in case any of the 2,000 remaining cult members try to retaliate for the executions.
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