Woman housing Japan cult fugitive in custody
Akemi Saito hides her face with a hood, as she is driven by police officers in Tokyo, Jan. 10, 2012. / AP Photo/Kyodo News
TOKYO - A woman claiming to have lived with a senior member of the doomsday cult behind the 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways turned herself in and was arrested Tuesday for helping him evade police for nearly 17 years.
Akemi Saito, also a member of Aum Shinrikyo, gave herself up after Makoto Hirata surrendered to police on New Year's Eve, according to police and Saito's lawyer.
Hirata has refused to explain how he managed to keep underground for so long despite being one of Japan's most-wanted fugitives.
He is suspected of involvement in a cult-related kidnapping-murder in 1995. Later that year, Aum Shinrikyo released sarin nerve gas in Tokyo's subways, killing 13 and injuring more than 6,000.
Saito's lawyer said she lived with Hirata most of the time he was on the run, and police charged her with aiding a fugitive. But the lawyer, Taro Takimoto, said she should be considered as Hirata's common-law wife, which would exclude her from that charge.
Takimoto said Saito has admitted to using an alias and moving frequently to avoid detection. She worked a number of jobs, from coffee shop waitress to health clinic receptionist.
"She said this was the first time she has used her real name in 17 years," he said.
He refused to comment further.
Hirata's sudden reapperance has shocked Japan.
Police initially brushed off Hirata when he tried to turn himself in because they did not recognize him and thought it was a hoax.
According to court testimony, cult members kidnapped, murdered and then burned the body of Kiyoshi Kariya, the brother of a follower trying to quit the group. They put Kariya's body in an incinerator inside the cult's commune and disposed of the ashes in a nearby lake.
Public broadcaster NHK said Hirata has told police he drove Kariya to the compound but has denied other allegations.
Hirata was one of the last three wanted cult members. Nearly 200 members of the cult have been convicted in the gas attack and dozens of other crimes. Thirteen, including cult guru Shoko Asahara, are on death row.
Hirata is also suspected in the near-fatal shooting of Japan's top police official, but the high-profile case was closed last year after the statute of limitations expired.
The cult, renamed Aleph, once had 10,000 members in Japan and claimed another 30,000 in Russia. It still has hundreds of members. The cult is under police surveillance and its new leaders have publicly disavowed Asahara, though he is still believed to be revered by some followers privately.
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