Asahara denies guilt in gas attack, 16 other cases

In a barely intelligible statement, sometimes using English and sometimes Japanese, Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara said April 24 that he is not guilty of ordering the 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system or a series of other crimes.

“I issued an order to stop (the subway attack) but was defeated (by my disciples) and arrested,” Asahara told the Tokyo District Court in Japanese, referring to Yoshihiro Inoue and the late Hideo Murai, both key members of the cult who have been implicated in the nerve gas attack. The statement was Asahara’s first for the court record since his trial began last April.

Until last July, Asahara repeatedly stated that he had nothing to say about the alleged crimes. In October, speaking during witness testimony, he said he would accept the blame but then added he was innocent.

He also said April 24 that he “never ordered” the death of Tsutsumi Sakamoto, a Yokohama lawyer representing families who wanted to help their relatives leave the cult. Sakamoto, his wife and baby son were killed in their home and buried at three separate sites in the mountains of central Japan in 1989.

During the two-hour morning session, the 42-year-old Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, expressed opinions on nine of the 17 criminal counts with which he has been charged. As usual, he started mumbling as soon as he took the defendant’s seat and continued to mutter to himself while a prosecutor took 15 minutes to read out a summary of the indictments.

Asahara was then called to the witness stand before the presiding judge and continued to mumble to himself. After opening his statement in Japanese, saying he first wanted to “talk about the subway sarin attack,” he unexpectedly switched to English and began talking about the 1995 killing of cultist Kotaro Ochida at an Aum facility in Yamanashi Prefecture.

Presiding Judge Fumio Abe told him to relax and speak in Japanese, but Asahara ignored him, muttering “our action … that is my … information,” in broken English. Asahara’s reason for using English was not immediately clear. His command of the language is not known.

He then switched into Japanese to “translate” his statement. “I did not murder (Ochida), but my disciples killed him by ‘chokkan’ (gut instinct),” he said. Asahara continued to comment on each case, first in English, then Japanese, even though Abe urged him to speak only in Japanese. Court stenographers appeared at a loss when Asahara spoke in English. But even in Japanese, his voice was so unclear that even Abe had to cup his ear to catch the words. The audible English expressions Asahara used included “after that,” “at that time,” “occasion” and “disciple.” He also called Aum a “religious party.”

At the end of his statement, Asahara claimed he has already been found not guilty in 16 of the 17 cases for which he is on trial. He claimed that an order to release him has already been handed down because he has been detained for more than one year since his arrest.

After listening to the statement, one of his lawyers asked him whether he recognizes that his trial is still continuing. Asahara said in English: “They say this is a court, but I think this is like a play,” as if he were talking to someone else.

Asahara was overheard apparently rehearsing his statement in his cell at Tokyo Detention House in preparation for the court appearance, informed sources said. As of April 23, his lawyers knew in advance what he would say on April 24, chief attorney Osamu Watanabe said. The defense team would not immediately agree with the contents of Asahara’s statement, Watanabe said.

Asahara was given an opportunity to state his opinion because two of the four judges in charge were recently replaced in a personnel reshuffle. The legal procedure also required prosecutors to read the summary of the indictments and the defense council to express its opinions.