Cult leader faces death penalty call over sarin attack

The Telegraph/April 20, 2003
By Colin Joyce

Tokyo -- Japanese prosecutors are to demand the death penalty for the leader of the Aum Supreme Truth cult whose followers used sarin nerve gas in an attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.

After seven years, the trial of Shoko Asahara, 48, who is accused of inspiring a catalogue of crimes including the sarin attack that killed 12 passengers and injured thousands, is drawing to a conclusion. Asahara has failed to persuade prosecutors of his insanity despite 250 bizarre appearances in the Tokyo District Court.

The guru of the apocalyptic cult has repeatedly mumbled in what sounds like English, snatched at the air and refused to answer questions from his defence team. His lawyers have based their defence on attempting to portray Asahara as an aloof leader whose mystic pronouncements were misunderstood by his followers.

He has spoken intelligibly only once, to say that one charge against him should be downgraded. On many occasions he has slept through court sessions.

In a desperate final move, Asahara's lawyers put him on the stand three times in the past month - but instead of responding to them he stared at the floor or made as if to catch and throw something that only he could see.

His strange behaviour, however, has not convinced the court that he is insane and this Thursday public prosecutors plan to call for him to be hanged.

Nine of his followers have been sentenced to death in separate trials for murders that judges have accepted were carried out on his orders, but the slow pace of Asahara's trial has infuriated victims and their families. After the summing up, which has yet to begin, three judges will sift the evidence before pronouncing the verdict and sentence - probably later this year.

Shoko Egawa, a prominent critic of the Aum cult, whom members once attempted to murder, said: "It is wrong that cult members below Asahara have already been convicted when he must bear the most responsibility."

Ms Egawa, a journalist who has reported on Aum for 14 years, survived an attack by a cult member who pumped poisonous phosgene gas through her letterbox one night in 1994. She awoke just in time and her startled attacker fled.

Japan was shocked and enraged by Aum's activities and anger spilled out in court in recent weeks as people whose relatives were murdered addressed the panel of judges and begged that Asahara be hanged.

One 64-year-old woman, whose husband was killed in the subway attack, said: "You stole our humble happiness and I can never forgive you, Asahara. You'll get the death penalty." Fusae Kobayashi, whose son died in a 1994 gas attack, said: "I cannot express the pain I have felt during these nine years. I would like to use these hands of mine to dish out to the defendant the same pain that he inflicted on my son and others."

The Aum attacks punctured much of modern Japan's self-confidence. Japanese were shocked that graduates of top universities flocked to the cult, turning their talents to manufacturing deadly weapons such as sarin instead of opting for steady jobs and comfortable lives.

The country was also stunned by the incompetence of the authorities, which failed to move against the cult, which has renamed itself Aleph, despite clear signs that it had turned violent long before the 1995 attack.

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