Tokyo -- The Tokyo District Court on Friday finished hearing from witnesses in the trial of AUM Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara charged with murder and attempted murder in the fatal 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack, setting the stage for questioning Asahara himself at the next session slated for March 13.
Asahara, 47, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has recently been refusing to respond to questions from Presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa or defense lawyers in court, but the defense team is demanding at least three occasions to question the cult leader.
Prosecutors have indicated agreement to the defense team's plan.
Sarin attack sufferers and the kin of the dead will make their statements as well.
The prosecution is expected to present its closing statement and its demand for punishment on the defendant in late April at the earliest.
In the next hearing, the 251st, questions are expected to be put to Asahara even if he continues to refuse to speak.
He has refused to consult with his court-appointed lawyers throughout the almost seven-year trial, which began in April 1996.
Prosecutors have spent more than five years hearing from witnesses, with the court approving more than 160 of them, but the defense lawyers have been able to call only 12 witnesses, including Masami Tsuchiya, 38, who continues to be a devout follower of Asahara.
Examination of defense witnesses began in June last year and ended in nearly nine months.
Asahara was indicted on 13 counts, including seven of murder. The 1995 sarin gas attack took the lives of 12 people and injured more than 5,000.
In April 1997, Asahara pleaded not guilty to all the charges except one of attempted murder.