Sakamoto family murder
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On November 4, 1989, Tsutsumi Sakamoto (坂本 堤 Sakamoto Tsutsumi April 8, 1956 – November 4, 1989), a lawyer working on a class action lawsuit against Aum Shinrikyo, a controversial doomsday cult in Japan, was murdered, along with his wife and child, by perpetrators who broke into his apartment. Six years later the murderers were uncovered and it was established that the assassins had been members of Aum Shinrikyo at the time of the crime.
Tsutsumi was born in Yokosuka, Kanagawa. After he finished Yokosuka High School, he entered Tokyo University and graduated in law. He worked as a law clerk until he passed the bar exam in 1984 at age 27. From 1987 he worked as a lawyer at Yokohama Law Offices.
At the time of his murder, Sakamoto was known as an anti-cult lawyer. He had previously successfully led a class-action suit against the Unification Church on behalf of relatives of Unification Church members. In the suit the plaintiffs sued for assets transferred to the group, and for harm inflicted by worsened family relationships. A public relations campaign in which protesters demanded public attention to their cause was instrumental to Sakamoto's plan, and the Unification Church suffered a serious financial blow.
By organizing a similar anti-Aum public relations campaign, Sakamoto apparently sought to demonstrate that Aum members, similar to members of the UC, did not join the group voluntarily but were lured in by deception and were probably being held against their will by threats and manipulations. Furthermore, religious items were being sold at prices far greater than their market value, draining money out of the households of members. If a judgment was handed down in his clients' favor, Aum could be bankrupted, thus greatly weakening or destroying the group.
In 1988, in order to pursue the class action suit, Sakamoto initiated the establishment of Aum Shinrikyo Higai Taisaku Bengodan ("Coalition of Help for those affected by Aum Shinrikyo"). This was later renamed: Aum Shinrikyo Higaisha-no-kai or "Aum Shinrikyo Victims' Association". The group still operated under this title as of 2006[update].
Circumstances of the murder
On October 31, 1989, aged 33, Sakamoto was successful in persuading Aum leader Shoko Asahara to submit to a blood test to test for the "special power" that the leader claimed was present throughout his body. He found no sign of anything unusual. A disclosure of this could have been potentially embarrassing or damaging to Asahara.
That same month, Tokyo Broadcasting System Television taped an interview with Sakamoto regarding his anti-Aum efforts. However, the network secretly showed a video of the interview to Aum members without Sakamoto's knowledge, intentionally breaking its protection of sources. Aum officials then pressured TBS to cancel the planned broadcast of the interview.
Several days later, on November 3, 1989, several Aum Shinrikyo members, including Hideo Murai, chief scientist; Satoro Hashimoto, a martial arts master; Tomomasa Nakagawa and Kazuaki Okazaki, drove to Yokohama, where Sakamoto lived. They carried a pouch with 14 hypodermic syringes and a supply of potassium chloride. According to court testimony provided by the perpetrators later, they planned to use the chemical substance to kidnap Sakamoto from Yokohama's Shinkansen train station, but, contrary to expectations, he did not show up—it was a holiday (Bunka no hi, or "Culture Day"), so he slept in with his family, at home.
At 3 A.M., the group entered Sakamoto's apartment through an unlocked door. Tsutsumi Sakamoto was struck on the head with a hammer. His wife, Satoko Sakamoto (坂本都子 Sakamoto Satoko, 29 years old), was beaten. Their infant son Tatsuhiko Sakamoto (坂本竜彦 Sakamoto Tatsuhiko, 14 months old), was injected with the potassium chloride and then his face was covered with a cloth. While the two adults struggled, they were also injected with the potassium chloride. Satoko died from the toxic injection, but Tsutsumi Sakamoto did not die as quickly from the injection alone and was strangled. The family's remains were placed in metal drums and hidden in three separate rural areas in three different prefectures (Tsutsumi in Niigata, Satoko in Toyama, and Tatsuhiko in Nagano) so that in case the bodies were uncovered, police might not link the three incidents. Their bed-sheets were burned and the tools were dropped in the ocean. The victims' teeth were smashed to frustrate identification. Their bodies were not found until the perpetrators revealed the locations after they were captured in connection with the 1995 Tokyo subway attack.
As reported by NHK in 2015, the Tokyo metropolitan police had received a tip that an Aum member was involved in the murder, and in 1991 launched an investigation into the cult's facilities in the city. However, the investigation was shut down after two months due to the murder having been committed in Yokohama, outside of the jurisdiction of the Tokyo police.
Evidence of Aum Shinrikyo's involvement in the murders was uncovered six years after the murder, after a number of senior followers were arrested on other charges, most notably in connection with the Tokyo subway attack. All of those implicated in the Sakamoto murders received death sentences. The court found that the murder was committed by order of the group's founder, Shoko Asahara, although not all of the perpetrators testified to this effect, and Asahara denied involvement. Asahara's legal team claims that blaming him is an attempt to shift personal responsibility to a higher authority.
After the culpability of TBS in the murders was uncovered, the network was swamped with complaints.
The motive for the murder is uncertain. Background information on Sakamoto's legal practice contradicts the "blood test" theory, according to which Asahara ordered the murder to prevent the disclosure of the test results that showed no special substance in his blood. A second theory is that the murder was designed to intimidate lawyers and plaintiffs, and to end the potentially financially crippling lawsuits against Aum.
Whether Sakamoto's death changed Aum Shinrikyo's legal viability is a matter of debate. However, no more class-action lawsuits were filed against it in the six years following the murders, although individual unfavorable rulings have harmed the group financially to a lesser degree.
Trial, conviction, and sentencing of the perpetrators
Following the Tokyo attacks, police charged Aum members Hideo Murai, Tomomasa Nakagawa, Kazuaki Okazaki, and Satoro Hashimoto with the murder of the Sakamoto family. Okazaki's trial lasted the shortest, as he pleaded guilty to all charges. Murai never made it to trial, as he was stabbed to death by a Korean assassin in April 1995 as he was being transferred by police. In 2000, the last two perpetrators, Nakagawa and Hashimoto, were convicted of the murders. On July 25, 2000, Okazaki, Nakagawa, and Hashimoto were sentenced to death by hanging.
Following the 2017 death of Kim Jong-nam (the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un) Nakagawa wrote a letter from prison in which he expressed his belief that Kim Jong-nam had died from VX poisoning, quantities of which Aum Shinrikyo had produced and used in the 1990s.
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