3 death row inmates set to testify in trial of fellow Aum member

Three death row inmates, all former senior members of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult, will be called to testify in open court in the case involving a fellow cultist.

The decision by the Tokyo District Court on June 17 will mark only the second time in Japan that a condemned person has been allowed outside prison walls to testify in a courtroom.

The trio will face questioning by lay judges in the trial of Makoto Hirata, who spent years on the run before surrendering to the police on New Year's Eve 2011.

Hirata, 48, is accused of abducting a Tokyo notary in 1995 who was later murdered by cult followers.

"The decision by the Tokyo District Court is reasonable," said Gishu Watanabe, a professor of criminal procedure law at Konan Law School in Kobe. "Hearing testimony in open court is a fundamental right for the accused."

Hirata will be tried under the citizen judge system. It will also be the first time for a death row inmate to give testimony in open court since the citizen judge system was introduced in 2009.

"Open trials ensure due process," said Watanabe. "Because the trial will be held under the citizen judge system, it is all the more important to carry out the witness examinations before observers rather than behind closed doors."

The three are Yoshihiro Inoue, 43, Tomomasa Nakagawa, 50, and Yasuo Hayashi, 55. They were sentenced to death for their roles in the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack, which left 13 people dead and more than 6,000 sickened. Nakagawa and Hayashi also took part in a separate sarin attack in Nagano Prefecture the year before that left eight people dead.

Execution in Japan is by hanging.

Public prosecutors had sought permission to question the three condemned men at the Tokyo Detention House, where they are being held, citing their psychological state and security reasons.

However, the district court dismissed the request, saying "it cannot be deemed necessary at present (to hold examinations at the detention house)."

The court's decision apparently reflects the respect it accords the citizen judge system, which was introduced to make the trial system more understandable to the general public and allow ordinary citizens to have a say in the legal process.

To date, legal authorities have rarely allowed third parties to contact death row inmates, citing the psychological state of the condemned and other reasons.

The Japan Federation of Bar Associations and organizations like Amnesty International have sharply criticized the ministry for the secrecy in which executions are carried out.

Thus, the decision to allow the three condemned men to leave their cells for appearances in open court can be described as epoch-making.

Inoue, Nakagawa and Hayashi were subpoenaed by the district court as witnesses in March.

Hirata's trial may start late this year, although it has not been decided when the three witnesses will be questioned.

Details of precautions to be taken when the three appear in court have still to be worked out. Officials explained that the court, taking into consideration their peace of mind, will likely give serious consideration to erecting a partition between the death row inmates and the gallery. Another option would be place the three men in a separate room and cross-examine them individually via monitor.

According to the Justice Ministry, witness examinations of death row inmates have occurred four times since 1999. In three of the cases, the questioning was conducted in a secure room inside prisons.

"We will decide what to do next after consulting higher administrative agencies," said Tatsuya Inagawa, a deputy public prosecutor at the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office.

The prosecutors office is considering filing a special appeal against the Tokyo District Court's decision to the Supreme Court.