Last plea for doomsday cult guru

An October 1990 file picture shows Asahara. Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty.

Reuters/October 30, 2003

Tokyo, Japan -- Defense lawyers for a doomsday cult guru charged with masterminding a 1995 lethal gas attack on the Tokyo subway have said he was a "genuine man of religion" who would not have ordered followers to commit murder.

Shoko Asahara, leader of Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect), stands accused of ordering sarin nerve gas attacks on rush hour subways that killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,000.

The attack by the members of the cult, which taught that the world was coming to an end, shocked a nation accustomed to crime-free streets and shattered its myth of public safety.

The defense team was winding up its argument in the trial, which has already lasted seven-and-a-half years and will not see a verdict until next February.

Ten cult members have been sentenced to hang for their part in the attacks and prosecutors are also seeking the death penalty for Asahara, 48.

Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, faces 13 charges, including ordering a separate nerve gas attack in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto in July 1994 that killed seven people and hurt 144.

"This series of crimes could never have been committed under instructions from a genuine man of religion," Japanese media quoted a defense lawyer as telling Tokyo District Court.

"The cases have nothing to do with Matsumoto and were carried out by his disciples."

Defense lawyers are expected to take two days to read out a document of more than 800 pages asserting Asahara's innocence.

The bearded Asahara originally refused to enter a plea but in April 1997 told the court he was not guilty. He has also made several confusing and unintelligible remarks.

He will be given a final chance to make a statement on Friday after his lawyers finish their argument, a court spokesman said.

Shortly after Thursday's session began, Asahara yelled out and raised his right hand. He was then restrained and warned by the judge not to cross his arms and legs, stroke his beard or place his elbow on his lawyer's desk, Kyodo news agency said.

Calling Asahara the "mastermind" of the crimes and Japan's "most heinous criminal," prosecutors demanded the death penalty when they concluded their case in April.

Asahara raises his clenched hand at the Tokyo District Court in this courtroom sketch.

In a rare move to speed up Japan's snail-paced court proceedings, prosecutors earlier dropped four counts against Asahara, who had faced a total of 17 charges.

Thursday's hearing was the 255th in the trial, which began in April, 1996 -- more than a year after the Tokyo subway attack.

The court will hand down its verdict on February 27, 2004.

All but one of the cult members already sentenced to death have appealed and if Asahara does the same, the case will drag on even longer.

Asahara set up the cult in 1987, fusing Buddhist and Hindu meditation with apocalyptic teachings to attract a 15,000-member following in Japan, including many graduates of some of the nation's elite universities.

Worried that the cult was making a comeback, Japan's parliament passed new laws in 1999 allowing the government to put it under strict surveillance.

As of December, there were still 1,650 Aum followers in Japan as well as some 300 in Russia, according to the Public Security Investigation Agency.

Earlier this year, the agency extended its surveillance of the group for three years after deeming it was still a threat.

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

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