Japan Doomsday Guru May Get Death Penalty

The Guardian/April 24, 2003

Tokyo -- Prosecutors on Thursday demanded the death penalty for a doomsday cult guru charged with masterminding the 1995 nerve gas attack that killed 12 people on Tokyo's subways.

Closing their case in a trial that has already taken seven years, the prosecutors demanded the Tokyo District Court hand down the harshest possible punishment for self-proclaimed messiah Shoko Asahara.

"The seriousness of the crime is unprecedented in this country,'' the prosecutors said in their closing statement, a several-hundred-page document they took turns reading aloud. "There is no room to consider leniency.''

Wearing a gray sweatsuit, his long hair cropped and his beard trimmed, Asahara showed no emotion during Thursday's session. He appeared to be dozing off as the prosecutors requested he be hanged.

The 48-year-old guru, whose doomsday cult once claimed more than 10,000 followers around the world, is accused of sending his top disciples to release the nerve gas sarin on Tokyo's subways during the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995.

The attack targeted stations close to the offices of Japan's central government. A dozen people were killed and some 5,000 sickened. Cult members have testified that the attack was intended to overthrow the government, create chaos and hasten Armageddon.

Asahara, who has denied the allegations but alternated between incoherent ranting and sullen silence throughout most of the trial, is also charged with ordering a series of other killings, assaults and kidnappings.

Prosecutors say he was involved in 26 deaths altogether. But the defense has argued that the crimes were carried out by Asahara's followers, without his involvement.

"Prosecutors completely failed to establish a link between the alleged crimes and Asahara,'' said chief defense attorney Osamu Watanabe. "I'm appalled.''

Nine of Asahara's top lieutenants have already been sentenced to death for their roles in the subway attack and other cult-related crimes. A verdict for Asahara isn't expected until early next year.

Thursday's closing arguments marked a major milestone for the lengthy trial, but court officials say the end is still months, if not years, away.

Japanese criminal trials - which are heard by a panel of judges, as there are no jury trials in this country - are generally slow because of long breaks between each court session.

So far, 254 sessions have been held since the trial began on April 24, 1996.

The 12-member, court-appointed defense team is set to make its final arguments on Oct. 30 and 31, but the verdict isn't likely until late March of next year. Several more years could be consumed by an appeal.

Asahara's cult now goes by the name Aleph and is under constant police surveillance. In separate court proceedings, it has been ordered to pay $32 million in damages to the victims.

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