TOKYO — People in Japan expressed relief Friday that the executions had finally taken place for the doomsday cult leader responsible for the shocking nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway two decades ago.
Shoko Asahara and six of his followers were hanged early in the morning, years after they were convicted and condemned for crimes including the sarin gas attack in 1995 that killed 13 people and injured thousands.
"I just thought, oh, the day has finally come," said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband, a subway deputy station master, was killed in the subway attack.
Reflecting widespread sentiments, Takahashi noted she was still struggling to make sense of what had happened, although the executions had been expected.
She told a news conference that she had hoped in vain authorities would come up with clearer lessons for anti-terrorism measures to prevent a recurrence.
Newspapers handed out extra editions about the executions to crowds at train stations.
"It's an end of an era," said one man, Masami Sakurai.
Japan, a relatively crime-free nation, was stunned by the March 20, 1995, gas attack. Members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult left sarin, a deadly nerve agent, in plastic bags on subway cars and poked the bags with umbrellas before fleeing. Commuters overcome by the gas were left writhing in pain.
The cult was implicated in other horrifying crimes. They killed a lawyer and his family because he was a cult opponent, and they tested sarin in an earlier attack that killed seven and injured dozens in a city in northern Japan.
In an unfortunate twist in the latter case, the husband of one of the victims was initially treated as the prime suspect. His wife died after being in a coma for more than a decade.
More than 1,600 members of cult splinter groups still practice Asahara's teachings across the country, Japanese public security officials say. They usually live in groups in apartments, including one in Tokyo.
In explaining the execution, Justice Minister Yoko Kamikawa said the acts of terrorism had targeted regular people and "shocked the world."
She said the seven hanged was the most in one day since Japan started disclosing the number in 1998.
"Today's executions are unprecedented in recent memory for Japan,"Hiroka Shoji, a researcher at Amnesty International, said in a statement. "The attacks carried out by Aum were despicable, and those responsible deserve to be punished. However, the death penalty is never the answer."
Fumihiro Joyu, who served as the spokesman for Aum Shinrikyo but has distanced himself from Asahara in the last decade, told reporters that he was relieved. "I offer my apologies to the victims and their families, and I feel more strongly than ever that we must work to prevent a recurrence."
Minoru Kariya, whose father was tortured to death by cult members in 1995 as he tried to get his brother to leave the cult, didn't see the point of keeping Asahara alive and wondering when his execution might be.
"I don't think it's possible to ever know the truth," he told Japanese broadcaster NHK.
Kenichi Asakawa's sister Sachiko survived the subway gassing but was left paralyzed. Asakawa, who cares after his bedridden sister, said on NHK that the executions have not brought solace.
"It does not bring a closure for us, and it does not change our lives," he said.