The Tokyo District Court on Friday sentenced a former member of Aum Supreme Truth, Makoto Hirata, 48, to nine years in prison for his participation in three crimes carried out by the cult.
Prosecutors had called for a sentence of 12 years. Six lay judges and three professional judges handed down the verdict in the trial which began on Jan 16.
After being on the run for nearly 17 years, Hirata turned himself in at a Tokyo police station on New Year’s eve 2011 after at first being turned away by another police officer who didn’t recognize him.
He was one of the final fugitives who went into hiding after the rush-hour release of sarin in March 1995, an episode that sickened thousands and sowed panic among Tokyo's millions of commuters.
In an unusual move, prosecutors called three former members of the cult to testify during the trial. It was the first time that death-row inmates have been called to testify as witnesses. The three were Tomomasa Nakagawa, 50, Yasuo Hayashi, 55, and Yoshihiro Inoue, 43.
Although Hirata was not charged in connection with the subway attack, he was tried over his role in the kidnapping of 68-year-old notary clerk Kiyoshi Kariya who had sheltered his sister after she escaped from the cult.
Kariya was taken to Aum's main commune at the foot of Mount Fuji and died the next day from what has been described as tracheal obstruction after being given an injection.
Hirata denied playing any active role in the abduction, contending that he only acted as a lookout. "I have no idea what happened after I finished the guard role," he testified.
Hirata was also found guilty of being an accessory in the bombing of a Tokyo condominium and the firebombing of an Aum facility. Prosecutors said the bombings were carried out to throw police off the trail.
Presiding judge Hiroaki Saito said that Hirata was fully aware of what he was doing and that he kept the public in a state of terror during his 17 years on the run.
Hirata joined the cult in 1984 after graduating from university and was mainly tasked with guarding Aum guru Shoko Asahara, a near-blind yoga master who attracted some 10,000 followers at the height of his popularity.
Asahara preached a blend of Buddhist and Hindu dogma, sprinkled with visions of the apocalypse. He developed an obsession with the Nazi-developed sarin gas -- used by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds -- becoming paranoid that his enemies would use it to attack him.
Prosecutors say the subway attack was launched because the cult wanted to disrupt police attempts to crack down on it and to throw Tokyo into chaos to realize the guru's dream of an apocalyptic war.
Thirteen cult members have been sentenced to death for the attack and other incidents, including Asahara. The total number of cult members indicted over the series of crimes is 190.
A man and a woman who were arrested in 2012, the final two fugitive members of the cult, are still awaiting trial.© Japan Today/AFP