AUM guru may undergo mental tests

Mainichi Shimbun/March 15, 2001

Shoko Asahara, the founder of the doomsday cult AUM Shinrikyo could escape punishment for masterminding the cult's crimes on the grounds that he is mentally unstable, the Mainichi has learned.

Asahara is on trial in the Tokyo District Court on 13 charges, including some relating to AUM's infamous Tokyo subway poison gas attack that killed 12 people, and other crimes.

His defense lawyers have asked that the guru undergo psychiatric tests and are expected to argue that Asahara has suffered a mental disorder due to his long-term detention.

If Asahara is proven to be mentally incapacitated, he will, under the Code of Criminal Procedure, escape punishment for the 13 charges, including murder. But if he is found to have feigned mental illness, his defense will suffer a body blow. "It can save or finish (Asahara)," a member of the defense team admitted.

Asahara's trial will be halted for about six months if the court grants the lawyers' request, made nearly four years after the start of Asahara's trial. The lawyers have been criticized for apparently prolonging the trial after the courts found Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, responsible for the AUM attacks during the trials of other cult members.

The guru has blamed his disciples for the offenses. Coinciding with the time that his trusted disciples were in turn pointing the finger at their guru during their respective trials, from around the autumn of 1996, Asahara increasingly began to act erratically in the court. His lawyers said they had been unable to fully communicate with him from around April 1997 and his mental state had reached the point where he should undergo psychiatric testing.

"It is impossible to judge whether he is capable of recognizing his current position and is fit to stand trial without undergoing expert analysis," one of the defense lawyers said.

In preparation for making the request, the lawyers have asked the court to inform them how Asahara is spending his time in his cell. The Tokyo Detention Center replied that there is nothing remarkable about his conduct.

It is likely that the defense team will file the request following the conclusion of prosecutors' arguments. Hideo Hosaki, a top psychiatrist who examined pedophile serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, said that the results of mental tests may trigger another round of endless debate in the court.

"You have to study everything about his behavior, not only his conduct in the courtroom but how he behaves in the detention center, to see whether he is mentally affected by his life in custody," Hosaki said.

"Moreover, he is a guru, and his background totally differs from that of normal persons on which medical judgements are based on. Whatever the result, it is a distinct possibility that the trial will run on and on."

Makoto Oda, a professor at International University of Health and Welfare in Tochigi Prefecture who examined an accused AUM member, believes Asahara should undergo the tests.

"I've heard a rumor that Matsumoto once asked his lawyers if it is possible to escape prosecution by feigning a mental disorder. So, if the mental examination can clear things up, it must be done," Oda said.

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