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Cult members to be hanged

Thirteen Japanese cult members may be sent to the gallows any day now for a deadly 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and other crimes. But when is uncertain. Such is the secrecy that surrounds Japan's death penalty system.

Tuesday marked 23 years since members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult punctured plastic bags to release sarin nerve gas inside subway cars, killing 13 people and sickening thousands. Cult leader Shoko Asahara and a dozen followers were sentenced to death for that and other crimes that killed 27 in all. Their sentences date back as far as 20 years.

Tuesday at 8 a.m. — around the time of the attack — uniformed subway employees lowered their heads in silence at Kasumigaseki station, a main target of the cult. Shizue Takahashi, the 71-year-old widow of an assistant stationmaster who died in the attack, and the current station master placed flowers on a temporary altar set up for offerings.

"It seems the (legal) process has entered a next stage," Takahashi told reporters. "I hope (executions) are carried out in accordance with the law."

The relocation of seven of the cult members to five detention centres outside of Tokyo last week has sparked speculation that executions could be imminent. In Japan, accomplices in a crime are customarily hanged on the same day. Ten of those on death row were convicted for the subway attack, a number beyond the Tokyo detention centre's daily capacity.

As with all executions in Japan, when and where they will be killed isn't being released, even to family members and lawyers. The executions won't be announced until they have already happened.

Takahashi recently asked the Justice Ministry for a chance to meet the convicts and witness their executions. "I want to follow through to the very end," Takahashi said at a recent news conference.

Her wish is unlikely to be granted.

Even prisoners sent to the gallows are not notified until guards come to their cells in the morning. After a chat with a chaplain, a last bite or a smoke, the prisoner is taken to the gallows.

If all 10 subway attack convicts are hanged, it would be the second-largest number executed on a single day in Japan's modern history. On Jan. 24, 1911, Japan hanged 11 political prisoners who allegedly plotted to assassinate the emperor.



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