Can AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Asahara be executed?

Tokyo, Japan - Since the death penalty handed down on 13 former top members of the AUM Shinrikyo cult over a series of crimes including murder has been confirmed, attention is now focused on whether cult founder Shoko Asahara is fit to be executed.

The Justice Ministry will consider executing the 13 including Asahara in accordance with the Code of Criminal Procedure.

However, the lawyer for Asahara, 56, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has claimed that the guru is suffering from mental illness. Law enforcement authorities can legally suspend the execution of a sentence if the convict is mentally ill.

Asahara is now detained in a solitary cell at the Tokyo Detention Center. Sources close to him say he hardly speaks, just whispers. In the daytime, he constantly sits on his knees or cross-legged, and seldom moves.

A detention center guard occasionally helped him eat, but he is now eating by himself again.

Asahara has been incontinent since March 2001, and was able to urinate properly only once in 2007, according to lawsuit records that his family launched claiming that law enforcement authorities failed to properly provide sufficient medical treatment to Asahara in prison.

Asahara now responds when he is encouraged to take a bath or do exercise, but has refused to meet his family.

Nevertheless, it is the general opinion among law enforcement authorities that he is fit to be executed. "There are various views, but he understands the meaning of words spoken by others. He's not mentally ill," an official says.

The Code of Criminal Procedure requires the justice minister to order the execution of a death-row inmate within six month after the ruling is confirmed. However, the law also stipulates that if the inmate's accomplices are standing trial or if the inmate is demanding a retrial, then this period must be excluded from the six-month period.

The death penalty on all 12 accomplices of Asahara has been confirmed, but the Tokyo High Court is now trying Asahara's second request for a retrial. Many of the 12 are also asking for a retrial.

The government is of the view that the justice minister does not have to be punished even if he violates the six-month clause in the Code of Criminal Procedure. "Even if the minister violates it, it won't immediately cause any legal problems. It's just an advisory provision," an official said.

Those executed between 2000 and 2009 had spent five years and 11 months on average behind bars after their rulings were confirmed.

Moreover, whether to issue an execution order depends largely on each justice minister. There are many people who refused to issue a single execution order while serving as justice minister.

Since the Democratic Party of Japan took over the reins of government in September 2009, two death-row inmates have been executed.

Justice Minister Hideo Hiraoka has declined to say whether he will issue an execution order while he is in his current post. "I'll cautiously make judgment on each individual case in view of the fact that the death penalty is the ultimate punishment," he told a news conference following a regular Cabinet meeting on Nov. 11.