Cult leader to appeal conviction

Sentenced to death for 27 killings. After 8-year trial, lawyers argue state failed to prove Asahara ordered followers to kill.

Montreal Gazette/February 28, 2004
By Mari Yamaguchi

It took nearly eight years for Japan's courts to convict and hand down a death sentence against former cult guru Shoko Asahara for the 1995 Tokyo nerve gas attack. With the appeal promised by his lawyers, it could take as many years to execute him.

The ex-leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult was sentenced yesterday to hang for masterminding a crime spree that culminated in the subway assault, killed 27 people and brought modern terrorism to one of the world's safest countries.

Lawyers for the former guru said they would appeal, a step that could take another decade to get through Japan's understaffed, snail-paced criminal justice system.

The prospect of another lengthy court battle - the trial began in April 1996 - embittered families of the cult's many victims.

"I am very angry that the trial dragged on for so long, that Asahara virtually ignored the trial, showing no interest in the proceedings, and treated it as though it was none of his business," said Saburo Yasumoto, whose daughter died in a nerve gas attack on the Japanese city of Matsumoto in 1994 that killed seven people.

Asahara's former disciples had already testified to his puppet-master role in their most terrifying crimes: the subway attack that killed 12 and sickened thousands, the Matsumoto attack, the killing of an anti-cult lawyer and his family and the cult's ambitious program to stockpile conventional and chemical weapons.

Defence lawyers argued prosecutors had not conclusively proved the cult's killers were working on Asahara's orders.

Asahara, 48, became the 12th former Aum member sentenced to death; none has been executed.

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