Tokyo subway sarin attack and related incidents
Main article: Tokyo subway sarin attack
On the morning of 20 March 1995, Aum members released a binary chemical weapon, most closely chemically similar to sarin, in a coordinated attack on five trains in the Tokyo subway system, killing 13 commuters, seriously injuring 54 and affecting 980 more. Some estimates claim as many as 6,000 people were injured by the sarin. It is difficult to obtain exact numbers since many victims are reluctant to come forward.
Prosecutors allege that Asahara was tipped off by an insider about planned police raids on cult facilities and ordered an attack in central Tokyo to divert police attention away from the group. The attack evidently backfired, and police conducted huge simultaneous raids on cult compounds across the country.
Over the next week, the full scale of Aum’s activities was revealed for the first time. At the cult’s headquarters in Kamikuishiki on the foot of Mount Fuji, police found explosives, chemical weapons, and a Russian Mil Mi-17 military helicopter. While the finding of biological warfare agents such as anthrax and Ebola cultures was reported, those claims now appear to have been widely exaggerated. There were stockpiles of chemicals that could be used for producing enough sarin to kill four million people.
Police also found laboratories to manufacture drugs such as LSD, methamphetamine, and a crude form of truth serum, a safe containing millions of U.S. dollars in cash and gold, and cells, many still containing prisoners. During the raids, Aum issued statements claiming that the chemicals were for fertilizers. Over the next six weeks, over 150 cult members were arrested for a variety of offenses. The media was stationed outside Aum’s Tokyo headquarters on Komazawa Dori in Aoyama for months after the attack and arrests waiting for action and to get images of the cult’s other members. On 30 March 1995, Takaji Kunimatsu, chief of the National Police Agency, was shot four times near his house in Tokyo and was seriously wounded. While many suspected Aum involvement in the shooting, the Sankei Shimbun reported that Hiroshi Nakamura is suspected of the crime, but nobody has been charged.
On 23 April 1995, Hideo Murai, the head of Aum’s Ministry of Science, was stabbed to death outside the cult’s Tokyo headquarters amidst a crowd of about 100 reporters, in front of cameras. The man responsible, a Korean member of Yamaguchi-gumi, was arrested and eventually convicted of the murder. His motive remains unknown. On the evening of 5 May, a burning paper bag was discovered in a toilet in Tokyo’s busy Shinjuku station. Upon examination it was revealed that it was a hydrogen cyanide device which, had it not been extinguished in time, would have released enough gas into the ventilation system to potentially kill 10,000 commuters. On 4 July, several undetonated cyanide devices were found at other locations in the Tokyo subway.
During this time, numerous cult members were arrested for various offenses, but arrests of the most senior members on the charge of the subway gassing had not yet taken place. In June, an individual unrelated to Aum had launched a copycat attack by hijacking All Nippon Airways Flight 857, a Boeing 747 bound for Hakodate from Tokyo. The hijacker claimed to be an Aum member in possession of sarin and plastic explosives, but these claims were ultimately found to be false.
Asahara was finally found hiding within a wall of a cult building known as “The 6th Satian” in the Kamikuishiki complex on 16 May and was arrested. On the same day, the cult mailed a parcel bomb to the office of Yukio Aoshima, the governor of Tokyo, blowing off the fingers of his secretary’s hand. Asahara was initially charged with 23 counts of murder and 16 other offenses. The trial, dubbed “the trial of the century” by the press, ruled Asahara guilty of masterminding the attack and sentenced him to death. The indictment was appealed unsuccessfully. A number of senior members accused of participation, such as Masami Tsuchiya, also received death sentences.
The reasons why a small circle of mostly senior Aum members committed atrocities and the extent of personal involvement by Asahara remain unclear, although several theories have attempted to explain these events. In response to the prosecution’s charge that Asahara ordered the subway attacks to distract authorities, the defense maintained that Asahara was not aware of events, pointing to his deteriorating health. Shortly after his arrest, Asahara abandoned his post as the organization’s leader, and since then has maintained silence, refusing to communicate even with lawyers and family members.
Asahara faced 27 counts of murder in 13 separate indictments. The prosecution argued that Asahara gave orders to attack the Tokyo Subway in order to “overthrow the government and install himself in the position of Emperor of Japan“.
Later, during the trial which took more than seven years to conclude, the prosecution forwarded an additional theory that the attacks were ordered to divert police attention away from Aum. The prosecution also accused Asahara of masterminding the Matsumoto incident and the Sakamoto family murder. According to Asahara’s defense team, a group of senior followers initiated the atrocities and kept them a secret from Asahara.
During the trials, some of the disciples testified against Asahara, and he was found guilty on 13 of 17 charges, including the Sakamoto family murder; four charges were dropped. On February 27, 2004, he was sentenced to death by hanging. The trial was called the “trial of the century” by the Japanese media. Meanwhile, Asahara resigned from his position as the Aum Shinrikyo representative in an attempt to prevent the group from being forcefully dissolved by the state.
The defence appealed Asahara’s sentencing on the grounds that he was mentally unfit and psychiatric examinations were undertaken. During much of the trials, Asahara remained silent or only muttered to himself. However, he communicated with the staff at his detention facility, which convinced the examiner that Asahara was maintaining his silence out of free will. Owing to his lawyers’ failure to submit the statement of reason for appeal, the Tokyo High Court decided on March 27, 2006, not to grant them leave to appeal. This decision was upheld by the Supreme Court of Japan on September 15, 2006.
Asahara was executed by hanging on July 6, 2018, at the Tokyo Detention House, 23 years after the sarin gas attack, along with six other cult members. Relatives of victims said they approved of the execution. Asahara’s final words, as reported by Detention Center officials, assigned his remains to the fourth daughter, who is unsympathetic to the cult and plans to dispose of the ashes at sea; this is being contested by the wife, third daughter, and other family members, who are suspected of wanting to enshrine the ashes where believers can honor them. As of March 2020, the ashes were still at the Tokyo Detention Center.