Japan Court to Rule on Doomsday Cult Guru in Feb

ABC News/July 4, 2003

Tokyo -- A Japanese court plans to hand down a verdict in the trial of the doomsday cult guru accused of masterminding a deadly gas attack on Tokyo subways next February -- nearly nine years after the event shocked the nation.

Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for Aum Shinri Kyo leader Shoko Asahara over the sarin nerve gas attack that killed 12 people and harmed more than 5,000 in 1995. The attack shattered the image of Japan as a crime-free society.

"We've told both sides that if the trial proceeds as scheduled, the ruling would be delivered on February 27," an official at the Tokyo District Court said on Friday.

Asahara, 48, faces 12 other charges, including the masterminding of a nerve gas attack in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto in July 1994 that killed seven people and hurt 144.

Prosecutors and Asahara's lawyers have said they would accept the date, which will be officially set after the final defense plea in court on October 30 and 31, he said.

Prosecutors demanded in April that Asahara be sentenced to death, saying: "It was indiscriminate terrorism and it is the most atrocious and nasty offence in the history of crimes."

Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has pleaded not guilty.

In a rare move to speed up Japan's oft-criticized snail-paced court proceedings, prosecutors had dropped four counts against Asahara. The doomsday cult case has run for more than seven years already -- not unusual for high-profile trials in Japan.

Nine cult members have already been sentenced to death and have all launched appeals, which Asahara would also be entitled to.

The doomsday cult, which Asahara set up in 1987, at one point attracted a 15,000-member following in Japan. In the past, it preached that the world was coming to an end and that the cult must arm itself to prepare for calamities.

According to the Public Security Investigation Agency, there were still 1,650 Aum followers in Japan and some 300 believers in Russia as of last December.

The cult has changed its name to Aleph -- the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet -- and insists it is now a benign religious group.

Earlier this year, the public security agency secured a three-year extension to keep up strict surveillance of the cult, as it was still deemed to pose a threat to the public.

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