Aum Shinrikyo cult guru: enigmatic or evil leader?

Life or Death: The mastermind behind the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack on a Tokyo subway, as well as numerous other atrocities, will be sentenced in the capital today

Reuters/February 27, 2004

A pudgy, nearly-blind yoga teacher who claimed he could levitate and predicted nuclear Armageddon, former Japanese cult leader Shoko Asahara mesmerised thousands of followers before he was arrested eight years ago and charged with ordering a deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

Now Asahara stands as a symbol of evil for a Japanese public shocked to its core by the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack, which shattered Japan's image as a citadel of safety.

Today, a Tokyo court is set to hand down a verdict in a long-running trial in which Asahara, 48, faces the death sentence for masterminding the attack on the rush hour subway that killed 12 people and made more than 5,500 ill.

The son of a poor "tatami" maker and one of seven siblings, Asahara -- whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto -- graduated from a school for the blind, where he was described by some as ambitious and by others as a bully.

Years later, as the pajama-clad, bearded leader of a cult with 10,000 members in Japan and others in Russia and elsewhere, Asahara rode in a white Rolls Royce and was served by followers catering to his every need.

The cult combined supernatural forecasts of a coming apocalypse -- it predicted the US would attack Japan and turn it into a nuclear wasteland -- with a frightening ability to produce high-tech modes of mass destruction.

Asahara's first job was as an acupuncturist and in the early 1980s he sold traditional Chinese medicine, reportedly amassing wealth by sales of potions like tangerine peel in alcohol.

Next he studied yoga and started a school to teach it. Then, according to cult literature, he travelled to the Himalayas to study Hinduism and Buddhism and meet the Dalai Lama.

In 1987, Asahara registered his Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth Sect), which was attracting some of the brightest science students from elite universities, as an official religious organization.

Three years later, Asahara and a score of his followers ran for parliament but the cult guru won only a smattering of votes.

Doubts about Aum deepened as some parents insisted their children were its prisoners and an anti-sect lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, disappeared with his wife and baby.

Asahara was said to have commanded absolute loyalty among his followers, who were forced to submit to the strict rules of an ascetic communal life, including a gruelling initiation ceremony and meditation for days in solitary confinement.

Cult members studied Asahara's works and performed rites such as swallowing water and then vomiting it up to "purify" their bodies, and drinking his bathwater to aid enlightenment.

Raids on Aum's sprawling complexes at the foot of Mount Fuji after the subway attack found the cult had amassed stockpiles of high-tech equipment and dangerous chemicals such as sarin.

Asahara, who is also accused of being behind a sarin attack in central Japan that killed seven people in 1994 as well as ordering the murder of lawyer Sakamoto and his family in 1989 and being responsible for the deaths of several cult members, has never testified.

No one knows for sure why the attacks were carried out.

He refused to enter a plea until telling the court he was innocent a year after the trial began and has since only made confusing, unintelligible remarks in the courtroom, including babbling English words.

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