Justice Ministry frustrated by delays in executing Aum Shinrikyo founder

Justice Ministry officials are growing increasingly irritated over moves that have delayed the execution of a man held responsible for 27 murders and fears that gripped the nation in the 1990s.

Defense lawyers have filed yet another appeal for a retrial of Chizuo Matsumoto, the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that spread nerve gas in public and killed its opponents during its reign of terror.

Matsumoto, 58, the blind and bearded guru who went by the name of Shoko Asahara when he led the doomsday cult, was sentenced to death by the Tokyo District Court in February 2004.

He was convicted of masterminding more than 10 crimes that killed a total of 27 people, including 12 in the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995 and eight in a sarin attack on a residential area in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in June 1994.

Three victims--an anti-Aum lawyer, his wife and their child--were murdered in November 1989.

The Supreme Court finalized Matsumoto’s death sentence in September 2006.

A senior ministry official said the public is demanding justice, given the high death toll from Aum’s crimes that were ordered by Matsumoto.

“The people will not support his escape from the death penalty,” the official said. “As long as the (capital punishment) system exists, the execution of his death sentence is unavoidable ‘homework.’”

Matsumoto’s defense team submitted its first appeal for a retrial in November 2008. Four days after that appeal was rejected in September 2010, the defense team submitted a second appeal.

On May 8 this year, the Supreme Court rejected the second appeal, saying there is no reason to start a retrial. The next day, the defense submitted its third appeal for a retrial to the Tokyo District Court.

Under the Criminal Procedure Law, courts can grant retrials under certain circumstances, including the discovery of new evidence.

However, Justice Ministry officials say Matsumoto’s lawyers are simply nitpicking at the procedures in his trial to prevent him from being sent to the gallows.

The ministry official emphasized that executions are possible even after the defense applies for a retrial.

“In the case of a death-row inmate repeatedly submitting appeals that have little substance, we can carry out the death sentence,” the official said.

In 1999, a death-row inmate was executed even though a court was examining his seventh appeal for a retrial.

However, the Justice Ministry customarily does not execute criminals during their appeals for retrials. It has shown more caution since the 1980s, when four death-row inmates were acquitted after their retrials were granted.

Another custom in the ministry is to refrain from executing prisoners when the trials of their accomplices are continuing because the death-row inmate could be summoned to testify.

The trials of three former Aum members, including Katsuya Takahashi, 55, who was arrested and indicted on murder charges in 2012 after years on the run, have yet to start.

“If it is decided that Matsumoto’s testimony is unnecessary in the trials for the three, there will be no obstacle in executing him even if a court is examining his appeal for a retrial,” the ministry official said.

However, some legal experts are calling on the ministry to show restraint during the appeal process.

“Under the current system, the only way to oppose a ruling after a death sentence is finalized is to appeal for a retrial,” said Shinichi Ishizuka, a professor of criminal law and procedure at Ryukoku University’s Graduate School of Law.

Ishizuka also said Matsumoto’s defense team is simply doing its job.

“The defense lawyers’ biggest mission is to protect the rights of death-row inmates,” the professor said. “What the defense team (for Matsumoto) is doing is a legitimate act.”

One other issue concerning Matsumoto’s death sentence is his mental health.

The Criminal Procedure Law stipulates that executions must be suspended for “insane” inmates who cannot understand the meaning of their death sentences.

Defense lawyers say Matsumoto falls under this category.

Matsumoto last appeared in public when the Tokyo District Court handed down its ruling in February 2004.

During his trial, he wore diapers, muttered to himself and sometimes burst out laughing for no apparent reason.

One source said of Matsumoto: “He uses a wheelchair to go to the yard. Even if I ask him something, he does not respond at all. He has become thinner than before, and his physical health condition is good.”

Author and psychiatrist Otohiko Kaga, who interviewed Matsumoto in 2006, recalled: “I was immediately aware that he is not pretending to be suffering from a mental disease. He was suffering from an emotional breakdown that resulted from his confinement. His (mental) condition was not one that makes it possible to carry out the death sentence.”

The Justice Ministry official, however, said Matsumoto is faking it.

“Matsumoto is acting abnormally to pretend that he is suffering from a mental disease. This poses no problem in executing his death sentence,” the official said.

In recent years, Matsumoto has refused to meet people, even his defense lawyers. His self-imposed isolation makes it difficult to confirm if he actually has psychiatric problems.