Today, Japanese authorities announced that cult leader Shoko Asahara and six other members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult have been executed by hanging for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March 1995. Thirteen people were killed and thousands were injured when the group unleashed the deadly gas onto three different subway lines during rush hour.
According to CNN, the trains were bound for the same station, and the group hoped to not only kill everyone on board, but thousands of other commuters at the transportation hub. Fortunately, their plan didn’t go as well as they hoped; chemical weapons experts estimated that as many at 10,000 people could have died.
Ashara (born Chizuo Matsumoto) and a dozen of his followers were arrested and charged in the months after the attack, but the trials and subsequent appeals took years to complete. In 2006, Ashara admitted responsibility for the attack in Tokyo, but claimed he wasn’t directly involved in executing it – “God” had told him the burden was his to shoulder. Six other members still face execution.
The Aum Shinrikyo cult was founded in 1984 and combined religious and new age philosophies that garnered thousands of followers, including doctors and scientists. A prevailing belief held by the cult was of a coming apocalypse that would be precipitated by a bombing campaign by the United States that would turn Japan into a nuclear wasteland. While rumors of abuse and brainwashing plagued the group, no one predicted the violence that was in store.
Before the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway, the group was linked to the brutal 1989 murders of a lawyer, who was working on a class-action lawsuit against the cult, and his wife and child. Then in June 1994, the cult released sarin gas from a truck while driving in circles around an apartment complex in the Nagano prefecture in central Japan, killing seven and injuring 500.
In 2007, Aum Shinrikyo split into two separate groups, Hikari no Wa and Aleph, and the latter – which has approximately 1,500 members – has since apologized for the Tokyo attack. Hikari no Wa, which has less than 200 members, has tried to distance themselves from Aum Shinrikyo’s criminal history entirely, focusing on “the new science of the human mind” and the group’s “spiritual roots.” For years, both groups were under government surveillance, but although the Japanese public still regards both with suspicion, in 2017, surveillance was lifted on Hikari no Wa. Aleph remains under surveillance, and Aum Shinrikyo is still considered a terrorist group by several counties, including the U.S., the European Union and Russia.