Final appeal on Tokyo subway gas attack rejected

Tokyo, Japan - Japan's top court on Monday rejected the final appeal against a death sentence meted out for the deadly 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, leaving 13 members of the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult facing the gallows.

The supreme court threw out requests to spare the life of Seiichi Endo, the last of the cultists indicted over a series of attacks, including that on commuters which left 13 people dead -- one of the nation's worst mass-murders.

"We heard no words of remorse, no words of apology. This shows what Aum really is," said Shizue Takahashi, whose subway worker husband died when Nazi-developed sarin was released onto several packed rush-hour trains.

The coordinated attacks at stations near the centre of Japan's seat of government sowed panic throughout Tokyo's heaving metro system.

As well as those who died, thousands more were injured, some of them seriously and permanently by inhaling or coming into contact with the gas, which cripples the nervous system.

Sarin, which Saddam Hussein deployed against the Kurds in northern Iraq, was also used in an attack by the cult on the city of Matsumoto in central Japan the year earlier. Eight people died.

Endo was "health and welfare minister" in Aum's self-styled government and played a key role in its study of sarin, VX gas, anthrax and other germs and poisons.

Presiding judge Seiji Kanetsuki said Endo "played a leading role in producing sarin gas, knowing what it would be used for," according to state broadcaster NHK.

Monday's ruling was the final court procedure against the 189 Aum cultists indicted over the crimes. Three sect members remain on the run.

The doomsday cult was founded in 1984 by Shoko Asahara, a near-blind yoga master who had attracted some 10,000 followers at the height of his popularity.

Asahara preached a blend of Buddhist and Hindu dogma mixed with apocalyptic visions, and developed an obsession with sarin gas, becoming paranoid that his enemies would attack him with it.

Asahara was arrested at a commune near Mount Fuji two months after the attack on Tokyo and sentenced to hang, having been convicted of crimes resulting in the deaths of more than two dozen people.

The guru used a mix of charisma, mysticism and raw power to commit one of Japan's most shocking crimes with his disciples, who included doctors and engineers educated at elite Japanese institutions.

Endo, who studied viruses and genetic engineering as a postgraduate at the prestigious Kyoto University, was one of the scientists who helped produce the sarin gas.

As well as the headline-grabbing Tokyo attack, Aum followers also killed figures Asahara thought were getting in his way, including a young anti-cult lawyer and his family.

All 13 Aum members sentenced to hang -- including Asahara -- remain on death row.

Despite the police attention, the cult remains legal in Japan, where the constitution guarantees freedom of religion and memories linger of the suppression of religions during World War II when Shinto was the state faith.

The Aum cult renamed itself Aleph -- after the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet -- and deposed Asahara. But authorities keep it under close surveillance, saying hardcore followers still revere him.

The government reported to parliament in April that there are still some 1,500 followers in Japan and 200 others in Russia.

Aleph on Monday called for a stay on the executions, noting that three Aum members are still on the run.

Under Japanese law, the justice minister cannot issue orders for executions until the sentences of all a convict's accomplices are finalised.

"We fear if (authorities) try to end the Aum incidents by rushing to execute accomplices, it would cause irretrievable harm to Japanese society, particularly after they ended patriarch Asahara's appeal de facto without trial," said a statement from the group.