Japanese cult leader sentenced to death

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Shoko Asahara, the leader of a doomsday cult which practised urban terrorism, was sentenced to death yesterday for masterminding what the presiding judge called "a plot to seize control of Japan in the name of religious salvation".

Judge Shoji Ogawa said that the blind guru bore "grave responsibility" for the actions of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult he founded. These included the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo underground, which killed 12 people and poisoned thousands, many of whom remain ill and traumatised.

"These despicable crimes deserve the ultimate penalty," said Mr Ogawa, dismissing claims by Asahara's defence team that he had lost control over his followers, and finding him guilty of all 13 charges, involving the deaths of 27 people.

The charges included the 1989 killing of the lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who threatened to expose the cult, along with his wife and baby son, and the 1994 gassing of an entire neighbourhood, which killed seven and made more than 600 ill.

During his marathon seven-year trial, Asahara's lawyers tried to prove that the cult leader was too frail to control his disciples, who they said were acting on their own initiative when they waged a bizarre campaign to hasten Armageddon. But the key testimonies of two senior cultists, Aum's former doctor Ikuo Hayashi and leading aide Yoshihiro Inoue, sealed Asahara's fate.

It is likely to be years before the death sentence is carried out, thanks to Japan's creaky appeals system. Many fear that the ailing guru, who boasted of his ability to communicate telepathically with his followers, will remain a danger as long as he is alive. Today known as Aleph, Asahara's cult has survived and remains under police surveillance; but with just 1,300 followers in Japan, it is a shadow of its former self.