updated 3/15/2006 2:51:00 PM ET 2006-03-15T19:51:00

Tokyo’s High Court upheld the death penalty for a doomsday cult member convicted in the 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas attack that killed 12 people, a court official said Wednesday.

Tomomitsu Niimi, a high-ranking member of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, was sentenced in 2002 to hang for murdering 26 people in seven separate attacks.

The court official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of court rules, had no other details about the decision on Niimi’s appeal.

Niimi gained notoriety at the start of his 1996 trial by refusing to enter pleas and pledging eternal loyalty to former cult leader Shoko Asahara, who was sentenced to die in 2004 but who also is appealing.

Niimi has denied involvement in the Tokyo attack but reportedly has admitted to other charges, saying he was following Asahara’s orders.

Sarin gas attack
Cult members released lethal sarin nerve gas on subway trains converging in central Tokyo in March 1995. The fumes killed 12 people and sent thousands to the hospital.

Niimi also was convicted of helping organize the 1989 strangulation of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto — one of the first people to publicly question the cult’s activities — and his wife and son.

Judge Kunio Harada said in his ruling that Niimi, as a senior member of the cult, was “highly responsible for each crime,” Kyodo News agency reported.

“The motive and demeanor of the crimes was of a heinous nature rarely seen in Japan’s criminal history.”

Asahara’s defense lawyers called on the same Tokyo court to halt trial proceedings, arguing the former guru suffers from mental stress and is unfit to stand trial, Kyodo said.

Mental competence questioned
In an opinion paper submitted late Wednesday, the defense challenged the credibility of a recent report by a court-appointed psychiatrist that concluded Asahara is mentally fit, according to Kyodo.

The nearly blind former leader mumbled incoherently during his eight-year trial, interrupting sessions with bizarre outbursts in English.

The court could rule on Asahara’s mental competency as early as this month.

The charismatic Asahara had predicted an apocalypse that only cult members would survive. The cult — which at its height claimed 40,000 members in Japan and Russia — was developing chemical, biological and conventional weapons in an apparent attempt to attack population centers and overthrow the government.

The cult was declared bankrupt in March 1996 but later regrouped under the name Aleph. It is under surveillance by Japan’s Public Safety Agency, which has warned that the group remains a threat.

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