Japan hangs 7 members of doomsday cult that released sarin gas on subway

The next time death penalty opponents tell you the United States is "the only civilized nation with the death penalty," go ahead and laugh in their faces.  Japan, whatever faults it may have or have had historically, is a highly civilized place, with a miniscule crime rate and standards of public order that even the Swiss can envy.  And boy, do they ever have a death penalty!

In the early hours of the morning today, seven members of the Aum Shinri Kyo religious cult that carried out a horrific sarin gas attack on the Toyo subway in 1995, killing 13 innocents and sending thousands to hospitals, were executed by hanging.  The cult had stockpiled horrific weapons to provoke a doomsday vision and killed a total of 27 people before it was broken up.

The leader of the cult, Shoko Asahara (real name: Chizuo Matsumoto), and six of his accomplices spent two decades in prison while appeals and other legal niceties were fought in court and finally resolved in January this year.  Another six members of the cult are in prison awaiting execution.

Aum Shinro Kyo coat of arms (Wikimedia Commons).

Amnesty International is horrified that Japan executes prisoners in the fashion it does.  The accounts in the media this morning actually downplay a little the nature of executions there, stating that the convicts  get only "a few hours' notice."  I actually visited a Japanese prison in the 1990s in the company of an old friend who happened to be a very senior police official, and I learned how the ritual is carried out from one who knows.

First of all, as with these prisoners, they are allowed to cool their heels in a cell following the final disposition of the death penalty verdict.  They are allowed months of time to contemplate their crimes and to know that death awaits, but with no idea at all when it will come.

Second, they await the opening of their cell doors in the wee hours of the morning, during the time that sleep normally is deepest, and a swift trip to the gallows as they rub sleep from their eyes.  Every night, as sleep overtakes their consciousness, they are aware that their deepest sleep may be interrupted by the hangman.  The impression that I got was their "several" or "a few" hours of notice amounts to the time necessary to bring the prisoner to the gallows and go through the formalities preceding the hanging.

In other words, the death penalty is meant to be carried out in a punitive way.  Because it is invoked only in the case of cruel murders.

Despite the criticism from Amnesty International and bien pensants in the West, Japan persists in its ways, and it often helps the survivors deal with their grief.  The AP reports:

"This gave me a piece of mind," Kiyoe Iwata, who lost her daughter in the subway attack, told Japanese broadcaster NHK.  "I have always been wondering why it had to be my daughter and why she had to be killed.  Now, I can pay a visit to her grave and tell her of this."

Ms. Iwata's peace of mind means more to me than Amnesty International's.

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