Is end near for doomsday cultist?

Sentenced to die, lawyers say creator of Japanese sect isn't mentally fit

Associated Press/August 19, 2006
By Eric Talmadge and Mari Yamaguchi

When she was finally allowed to visit her father, she found him in a wheelchair, wearing a diaper. A prison guard took notes throughout the 30-minute encounter in a small, barren room, in which she spoke through a plate of thick, transparent plastic. It was, for her, a dream come true, manifested as a nightmare.

Sitting on the other side of the glass was Shoko Asahara. Because of his arrest and trial, the teenager had gone from obscurity to being the daughter of Japan's most hated man — something like Osama bin Laden to Americans.

Asahara was sentenced to hang for trying to bring down Japan's government in an elaborate scheme to hasten Armageddon with a series of violent crimes culminating in a March 20, 1995, nerve-gas attack on Tokyo's subways that killed 12 people and sickened 5,000. His arrest was seen live on television as a phalanx of riot police marched on his Aum Shinrikyo cult's fortress at the base of Mount Fuji.

The second and third of his four daughters spoke to The Associated Press about their prison visits but, fearing reprisals, insisted on anonymity. During the interview, the younger daughter wore a wig to disguise herself.

Japan's tough prisoner visitation rules were tightened even further to apply to Asahara's six children and other relatives. The daughters waited nine years for the chance to visit him.

Authorities had their reasons: They feared Asahara might try to pass messages to followers, and the third daughter had been rumored as his cult successor. In the interview, she scoffed at that possibility, but didn't flat-out deny it.

But as the case against him progressed, Asahara's defense team was facing an increasingly serious problem — they couldn't communicate with their client.

Condition was 'a shock'

Shortly after his eight-year trial began, Asahara started to behave incoherently. He mumbled, chuckled, had outbursts of gibberish, then fell silent. Blind and virtually deaf, the man who portrayed himself as a messiah appeared to have lost his mind.

So, as they prepared an appeal after his conviction in 2004, his lawyers decided to push for visits with Asahara's daughters, hoping these would somehow bring him out of his shell.

The court agreed.

"Seeing our father again was the only thing that kept us going," the second daughter said in the interview. She had been warned he was in bad shape, but what she saw came as a shock. "I wanted to tell him and ask him so many things," she said. "But he just sat there grinning. It was unbearable."

Though 51, he looked old and frail. He didn't respond to anything she said, just mumbled and chuckled. During a later visit, he masturbated in front of her. She went into a deep depression and was briefly hospitalized.

Never in their dozens of visits have they had a coherent conversation, the daughters say.

But while Asahara failed to bring down Japan's government, many think he is now succeeding in making a mockery of — or becoming a martyr at the hands of — its justice system.

In June, Asahara's lawyers petitioned Japan's Supreme Court in what could be their last chance to save him. A decision is expected at any time.

He 'can be treated'

If the sentence stands, and Japan follows normal practice, the self-proclaimed guru will be hanged without prior announcement, and his daughters will be notified only after he is dead.

Asahara's post-conviction saga has been no less bizarre than his courtroom behavior.

His legal team missed the deadline to file an appeal because, they claim, they couldn't communicate with him in any meaningful way.

Evaluations conducted before the appeal deadline by court-appointed psychiatrist Akira Nishiyama found Asahara to be disturbed but competent, and suggested he might be faking insanity to avoid punishment.

But Takeshi Matsui, who heads the defense team, said Asahara suffers from "prison psychosis," which is manifested in delusions, hallucinations, incoherent speech and disorganized behavior. Matsui's motion demands Asahara be treated and that they be allowed to appeal once he is stable enough to assist his defense.

"I have heard these kind of problems can be treated in a matter of months," Matsui said.

The law, at least, is clear.

Prisoners cannot be executed if they have lost the ability to understand the punishment due to mental illness, and a stay must be granted until he or she recovers, Justice Ministry official Hiroyuki Tsuji said.

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