Cult leader faces his own moment of truth

The Age/April 26, 2003

The death penalty looms for the mysterious man described as Japan's "most atrocious" criminal, Chizuo Matsumoto.

Throughout the day in courtroom 104 at the Tokyo District Court, Chizuo Matsumoto had maintained his studied disinterest as prosecutors summed up the case against the man they described as the "Devil."

For almost five hours, the packed courtroom - sometimes amid sobs - had listened to the acts of violence Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, directed as guru of the Aum Supreme Truth cult, claiming 27 lives. The most shocking was the 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo subways, killing 12 and sickening 3800.

There had been a moment of madness - either contrived or real - when he appeared to snap with his teeth at a guard. For the most part, the near-blind guru - wearing a grey tracksuit - had stretched his legs out and yawned. In the seven years the trial has run, he has maintained his silence.

Now the moment had come when the prosecutors reached their conclusion, and were about to demand the death penalty for "the most atrocious criminal in our nation's history".

In anticipation, Matsumoto nervously grabbed at his prison-cropped beard. In seven years, this small gesture was perhaps the first indication that he appreciated the gravity of his situation, and the horrendous nature of the crimes with which he was charged.

For the families of those who died, those who survived to suffer, and indeed the nation itself, the lack of contrition of the self-declared guru has been difficult to bear.

And even now, as he edges closer to the gallows, there is little satisfaction in the prospect of him receiving the ultimate penalty.

"Some surviving family members said that they want to kill them (the cultists) by themselves or want them to die with as much pain as possible," said Shizue Takahashi, head of the victims' group, after the hearing.

"If I could," a child of a victim said in a statement read to the court, "I'd tear him apart limb by limb with my bare hands."

A few hundred metres from the courtroom is the scene of Aum's most shocking moment. The Kasumigaseki station serves the heart of the nation's bureaucracy, delivering tens of thousands each day by three intersecting subway lines.

Like many big Tokyo subway stations, Kasumigaseki sprawls beneath the city, a warren of passages with exits designated by a letter and numeral. Exit A2 has a particular significance, serving the Tokyo Metropolitan Police and the National Police Agency.

It was Kasumigaseki, particularly those who would use A2, that was Aum's target. Just after 8am on March 20, 1995, as packed trains converged on the station every few minutes, five Aum members punctured 11 plastic bags of sarin - a gas that the Nazis developed.

The result was devastating. Choking, vomiting workers struggled or were dragged to the surface.

This week, Japan relived the horror as the terrible scenes were replayed on TV as the call was made for the guru to hang.

Aum's aim had apparently been a grandiose and bizarre plan to take over the nation. The crude sarin bombs were never going to achieve such an aim. But they unleashed dreadful suffering.

In the aftermath of the Tokyo attack, Australia's role in the sect's plans was revealed. Aum had bought a property in Western Australia in late 1993. When sect members left the following June, the carcases of 24 sheep were found in a corner of the property. Tests revealed they had been poisoned with sarin.

Matsumoto's trial has been a grinding process. Despite pleading not guilty to all but one charge, he has maintained his silence in the 254 days of hearing.

The court will probably hand down the death penalty later this year, but after that there could be lengthy appeals.

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