Japan's subway attack of 1995: Trial of Aum cult member opens

TOKYO (AFP) - The trial began in Japan on Thursday of a former member of Aum Supreme Truth, 19 years after the doomsday cult launched a nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 13 people.

Makoto Hirata, 48, turned himself in at a police station two years ago after spending much of the last two decades on the run.

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.

The trial, which is expected to last around two months, is being closely followed in Japan, not least because three senior Aum figures who are already on death row are expected to testify, raising hopes they may provide insight into a crime that continues to baffle the country.

Although Hirata is not charged in connection with the subway attack, he is being tried over his alleged role in the kidnapping of a 68-year-old man who had sheltered his sister after she escaped from the cult.

The victim 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 has 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 told the court on Thursday.

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 realise 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 has risen to 189.

A man and a woman who were arrested in 2012, the final two fugitive members of the cult, are still awaiting trial.

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