Japan Cult Leader Trial Hits Halfway After Six Years

Reuters/January 10, 2002

Tokyo -- The trial of the leader of a Japanese doomsday cult charged with masterminding a deadly sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways hit its half-way point on Thursday, nearly six years after hearings began.

Prosecutors wrapped up their arguments at the Tokyo District Court, where Shoko Asahara, founder of the Aum Supreme Truth cult, is on trial for 13 crimes including planning and ordering the 1995 attack which killed 12 and left thousands ill, Kyodo news agency said.

The trial of Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has come to symbolise Japan's snail-paced judicial system.

The trial began in April 1996 and legal experts say it may take at least six more years before the defence concludes its arguments and a verdict is reached.

If convicted, Asahara -- who has pleaded not guilty except to one charge of attempted murder -- is likely to be sentenced to death by hanging, the maximum penalty for murder.

A number of cult members have already been sentenced to death.

At the 218th public hearing on Thursday, the defence team cross-examined the prosecution's last witness, a former senior member of AUM accused of helping engineer the attack.

The court has proposed starting arguments by the defence on May 23, but defence lawyers want more time, Kyodo said.

"It remains unclear what the AUM members were thinking and why they did such things," Osamu Watanabe, chief defence lawyer, told a news conference. "Prosecutors say we are using stalling tactics, but this is invalid."

The cult, which has changed its name to Aleph - the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet - insists it is now a benign religious group, but the public still harbours concerns.

The deaths from anthrax in the United States following the September 11 attacks on Washington and New York revived memories of Aum, which two years before the March 1995 sarin attack sprayed anthrax into the air above its Tokyo headquarters.

Experts said the fact that it was a harmless strain designed to be used as a vaccine for cattle prevented a disaster from occurring then.

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