Decision comes one day before lawyers will give their final defense in the trial of Shoko Asahara, the group's leader.
A former senior member of the doomsday cult that carried out a deadly nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 was sentenced to die by hanging on Wednesday for his role in that crime and others.
A Tokyo court on Wednesday sentenced 41-year-old Tomomasa Nakagawa to death for his involvement in a series of murders including the Aum Shirikyo sect's deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway eight years ago. Nakagawa, a doctor, was accused of helping make the nerve gas used in the attack.
Cult members released the gas in the subway, killing 12 people and leaving thousands ill. It is the worst case of domestic terrorism in Japanese history.
According to Japan's Kyodo news agency, Nakagawa's defense lawyers had argued that he did not know the gas would be used in the attack, and therefore, had no criminal intent. They said he was just following his superiors' orders. But he had already pleaded guilty to the 1989 murder of a lawyer who handled complaints against Aum.
Nakagawa is the tenth member of Aum Shinrikyo to be handed the death penalty, and the other nine have filed appeals. Executions in Japan take place rarely and most of those condemned spend decades in prison.
Nakagawa's sentencing comes one day before lawyers for cult leader Shoko Asahara will give their closing arguments. A ruling is expected on February 27 and will be widely followed by the Japanese media.
Mr. Asahara established the doomsday cult in 1987 and at one point had at least 15,000 Japanese followers as well as thousands more in Russia. He preached that the world was ending and that members must be prepared. Confessions of former members and police raids on Aum's offices unveiled plans to overthrow the Japanese government. The group also experimented with the development of a variety of chemical and biological weapons.
The cult has changed its name to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and insists it has renounced violence. Even though the group has only 1,000 followers, the Japanese police closely monitor it and say it continues to pose a threat to the public.