Life term sought for Asahara's driver

Japan Times/May 19, 1999

Prosecutors demanded life in prison Wednesday for a former Aum Shinrikyo fugitive accused of chauffeuring one of the cultists accused of releasing sarin in the deadly Tokyo subway gas attack of March 1995.

In a statement read before the Tokyo District Court, prosecutors said Koichi Kitamura, 31, actively played a part in indiscriminately murdering 12 people and injuring thousands of others in the subway because of his belief in the cult's self-righteous doctrine, and should thus be sentenced to life imprisonment.

Prosecutors said during Wednesday's session that because Kitamura's behavior indicated no signs of regret, there is no reason for leniency.

Kitamura sat straight and motionless in his chair, staring straight ahead as the prosecutors made their 3 1/2 -hour statement.

In his opening trial hearing in May 1997 Kitamura admitted he chauffeured Kenichi Hirose, a former senior cultist, to Yotsuya Station in Chiyoda Ward. But he denied conspiring with cult founder Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, saying he did not know that sarin was deadly.

Only one of five cultists originally accused of releasing nerve gas on the subway system -- former Aum doctor Ikuo Hayashi -- has been convicted thus far. Meanwhile, prosecutors argued that Kitamura, who served as Asahara's chauffeur and bodyguard, must have known of sarin's deadliness because the guru frequently mentioned it during his preaching.

Prosecutors allege Kitamura drove Hirose from a hideout in Tokyo's Shibuya Ward to Yotsuya Station on the Marunouchi line on the morning of March 20, 1995. Afterward, Hirose allegedly took the subway train bound for Ogikubo and released the nerve gas from two plastic bags, killing one person and injuring about 350.

Kitamura also aided Takeshi Matsumoto, who was wanted for conspiring in the murder of Tokyo notary public Kiyoshi Kariya, in escaping the police, they said. Kitamura was evading police himself until he was arrested in November 1996 in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture.

Kitamura has either refused to testify or remained silent in court except for a hearing at the end of March, when he suddenly asked the judge for permission to speak. He took the opportunity to say he still believes in the guru. "My resignation (from Aum) is entirely untrue," Kitamura said in March. "I wrote the resignation paper to commute my sentence. I still have faith in guru Asahara."

Kitamura's final hearing is scheduled for July 13.

Rising fears prompt calls to keep Aum in check

The government must respond to growing fears neighbors of Aum Shinrikyo facilities have and make efforts to restrict the cult's activities, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hiromu Nonaka said Wednesday.

"There are requests from locals every day for the government to act to restrict the group's activities. We must fully consider ways to tackle this problem," the top government spokesman said.

Nonaka said the government is considering a new law to block the sect's activities, but it is having difficulty formulating one. "It is extremely difficult to draw up a new law targeting Aum Shinrikyo. If we use the term 'cult' in new legislation to regulate the group, it would also provoke problems in modern society," he said.

Nonaka said ministries and government agencies will study the issue. The government earlier applied to the Public Security Commission, an independent seven-member board, to disband the cult under the Antisubversive Activities Law, but its request was rejected in 1997.

Nonaka's comments followed those made earlier in the day by Home Affairs Minister Takeshi Noda, who suggested at a news conference that the government make another attempt to invoke the law against Aum.

Police on Tuesday morning searched Aum-related facilities in Aichi, Nagano and Fukushima prefectures, as well as in Tokyo, in connection with a case in which a 39- year-old male follower of the cult allegedly used forged documents to buy land without revealing Aum was involved in the deals.

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