Cult Members Behind Sarin Nerve Agent Attack in Tokyo Could Be Executed 23 Years Later

Japan has remembered the victims of a deadly sarin nerve agent attack in Tokyo's subway that shocked the world in 1995, amid speculation that those responsible for the crime will soon be executed.

A shrine was set up in the Japanese capital's Kasumigaseki station on Tuesday to honor the 13 victims of the attack that took place 23 years ago, the Associated Press reported.

Some 6,000 people were also injured when members of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo punctured plastic bags containing sarin with the tip of their umbrellas, releasing the deadly chemical agent into the morning rush hour-packed train compartments.

Cult leader Shoko Asahara—whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto—was sentenced to death in 2004, along with a dozen of his followers, for carrying out the attack, as well as other crimes that killed a total of 27 people. The relocation of seven of the cult members on death row to facilities outside Tokyo last week was seen as a step toward their execution, according to Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbum.

The final trial concerning the cult members concluded in January and, according to Japanese law, executions should be carried out within six months after the death sentence is finalized.

"The rulings of death penalties came after a long period of time was spent in trials. I think we've entered a new stage," Shizue Takahashi, the 71-year-old widow of Tokyo metro worker Kazumasa Takahashi who died in the attack, and a representative of a support group for the victims' families, told the media Tuesday after bringing flowers to the shrine.

"I hope they will be executed according to law and without making a fuss about it," she added.

03_20_Shoko Asahara
Shoko Asahara (center), head of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo, is transferred from Tokyo police headquarters to Tokyo District Court for questioning, in this picture taken on July 19, 1995. Speculation is growing that members of the cult could soon be executed for the 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo's subway. Jiji Press/AFP/Getty Images

Japan carries out death sentences exclusively by hanging. Four inmates were executed in 2017, while another 123 remained on death row by the end of the year, Japanese media reported.

The executions are shrouded in secrecy. Inmates are notified of the execution on the day itself. Their families and relatives, as well as the media, are only notified after the hanging has taken place.

The country recently faced scrutiny over its death penalty practice, an issue on which the government has regularly been surveying the population since 1965. The most recent survey showed widespread support for capital punishment among the adult population, although the percentage fell from 85.6 percent in 2009 to 80.3 percent in 2014.

"The majority of the Japanese people consider the death penalty to be unavoidable in the case of extremely heinous crimes and therefore Japan currently does not have any plans to establish a forum to discuss the death penalty system," Japanese officials wrote earlier this month in response to a U.N. report on human rights in the country.

Some survivors of the attack questioned what the executions would accomplish. "The victims' pains won't be healed even if they are executed," 63-year-old Sakae Ito was quoted as saying by the Kyodo news agency, with another survivor echoing his view. "The case will never settle. I don't want (people) to forget," 45-year-old Ikuno Morise said.