Tokyo, Japan -- After a seven-and-a-half-year trial, the chief lawyer defending doomsday cult guru Shoko Asahara, charged with masterminding the deadly 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subway, is about to wrap up his case and wait for a verdict.
If convicted, Asahara could be hanged. But lawyer Osamu Watanabe says he would appeal if a death sentence is handed down, and that could add additional years before the case is concluded.
Watanabe said he will claim in his final argument on Thursday that the prosecution has failed to prove Asahara was directly responsible for the rush-hour attack, which left a dozen people dead and sickened thousands.
"The trial started with the assumption that Asahara's group was a bunch of murderers," he said in an interview earlier this week. "Asahara's responsibility as the leader of the religious group and his criminal responsibility are two different things."
Watanabe also claimed the three-judge tribunal at the Tokyo District Court has been excessively lenient toward the prosecution -- an allegation often leveled against the Japanese judicial system, in which more than 95 percent of all defendants are found guilty.
Along with the March 20, 1995, nerve gas attack, Asahara is charged with planning and ordering a series of other killings, assaults and kidnappings that resulted in 27 deaths, prosecutors say. In April, after presenting their final arguments, they demanded the death penalty.
The involvement of members of the Aum Shinri Kyo cult, which Asahara founded and built into a group that at its height claimed as many as 30,000 followers, has already been proved in court.
Nine of Asahara's top lieutenants have been sentenced to death for their roles in the subway attack and other cult-related crimes. Two other verdicts are pending that could lead to capital punishment.
But throughout the trial, Watanabe and his team of defense lawyers have argued Asahara, though worshipped as a living god by his disciples, was not responsible and that his followers were acting on their own. The defense has stressed that Asahara was not at the scene of most of the attacks.
Watanabe, a well-known human rights advocate and outspoken opponent of the death penalty, said he would appeal such a sentence.
"Absolutely," he said. "It's the right of the defense counsel."
He conceded that public opinion is overwhelmingly against Asahara's defense team, and said that has tainted the proceedings.
The subway attack and subsequent revelations of other brutal acts, chemical weapons laboratories and plots to overthrow the government by members of Asahara's cult made him and his neo-Buddhist followers the focus of intense hatred and fear throughout Japan.
The defense has faced other complications as well.
Asahara fired his first private lawyer on the eve of the original start date in October 1995. The court then appointed a 12-member legal team for Asahara, headed by Watanabe, but Asahara refused to discuss the case -- or even speak -- with them. The trial finally began in April 1996.
In court, Asahara never testified intelligibly or showed remorse for the victims. Instead, he has often dozed off, mumbled incoherently and made bizarre motions. He remained silent during recent sessions when he was allowed the chance to make a statement.
It is not known whether he intends to say anything on Thursday, when the court is expected to offer him a last chance to speak.
Thursday's will be the 255th session of the trial -- a fact that has outraged survivors of the attacks and the families of the victims.
Relatives of those who died say they are angry at the length of the trial, which has been exceptionally long and complicated even by Japan's sluggish standards. Thursday's session is the first in six months.
But an end could still be far off.
The verdict is set for late February 2004, and if the district court sentences Asahara to death, Watanabe's promise of an appeal could add on several more years before a final conclusion is reached.