Ex-AUM cult member Hirata sentenced to 9 years in prison

Tokyo -- A former senior member of the AUM Shinrikyo cult, who turned himself in to police after nearly 17 years on the run, was sentenced Friday to nine years in prison by the Tokyo District Court for his involvement in three AUM-related cases.

Makoto Hirata, 48, was found guilty on charges of involvement in the abduction and confinement of a Tokyo notary clerk in February 1995 as well as the bombing of a Tokyo condominium and the firebombing of an AUM facility the following month, both of which were aimed at impeding the police investigation.

Abductee Kiyoshi Kariya, 68, died after being injected with an anesthetic drug by the religious group.

While the focus of the lay judge trial was on whether Hirata had been aware of the criminal plans beforehand, Presiding Judge Hiroaki Saito said Hirata "joined the group's criminal acts with full awareness of them, and achieved his roles unfailingly."

While prosecutors sought a 12-year prison term, his defense team argued he should be given a four-year term, equivalent with the punishments imposed on former cult members involved in the crimes, maintaining he did not have prior knowledge of the abduction and bombing cases.

"The defendant took part in a series of terrible and selfish crimes without reluctance," the judge said. "While apologizing to victims and their bereaved families, he escaped for a long time and reiterated unnatural excuses in the trial."

Hirata's case is the first involving an AUM member to be tried by a panel of three professional and six lay judges. It is also the first AUM-related case in which a victim's family member has taken part.

Minoru Kariya, 54, the son of Kiyoshi Kariya, questioned Hirata about the cause of his father's death. Hirata insisted nobody had told him about it.

The court also took the rare step of summoning three former AUM members on death row to testify at the trial. The three -- Tomomasa Nakagawa, 51, Yoshihiro Inoue, 44, and Yasuo Koike, 56, whose previous surname was Hayashi -- were involved in the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.

During his trial, Hirata said he turned himself in to police on Dec. 31, 2011, in the hope his action could delay the executions of death row inmates who were members of the cult group, except for AUM founder Shoko Asahara, 59, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.

Hirata also said he went on the run for fear of being wrongly accused of involvement in the attempted murder of the national police chief in 1995, for which police considered him a suspect at one point during their investigation.