Last of three parts

Staff writer

When Osamu Watanabe was appointed to the defense team for Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara, he thought the case no different from others despite its place at the center of national attention.

However, Watanabe’s approach and the public’s view of the suspect have been at odds. The defense counsel’s battle for justice has often been viewed unfairly, Watanabe said, because of the general assumption that Asahara is guilty.

“We have been following our usual practices just as other lawyers have been doing, but we have been criticized for (allegedly) trying to delay court proceedings,” Watanabe said in an interview with The Japan Times. “The public assumes that Asahara is guilty and thinks that not much time should be spent on his trial,” he said.

As the chief attorney of the defense team’s 12 court-appointed lawyers, Watanabe, 63, has defended Asahara in the Tokyo District Court’s largest courtroom since April 1996. Asahara, 42, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has been indicted in connection with 17 cases. Among other alleged wrongdoings, he is believed to have masterminded the March 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that left 12 people dead and 3,795 injured, and the murder of an anti-Aum lawyer and his family in November 1989.

Asahara has not entered a plea in any of the cases.

Presiding Judge Fumihiro Abe has demanded that the defense clarify its points of contention to better focus examinations and improve efficiency of the proceedings. The team has insisted that the 17 cases are so complicated and closely interwoven that it is unable to draw up points of contention until the counsel has fully comprehended each case.

“We are saying that we are not bound by law to enter a plea,” Watanabe said. “We will check all the claims that prosecutors have made and thoroughly grill them on all weak points and questions in their arguments that we have found during our cross-examinations.”

After every hearing, Watanabe and two lawyers from the defense team meet with court reporters at a news conference. There, he gives frank answers to the media’s questions, often with a smile. But his face muscles constrict with comments on the bench’s suggestions to increase the efficiency of the proceedings.

In slamming the lawyers for allegedly trying to delay the proceedings, critics are in effect asking the defendant to abandon his right to dispute, Watanabe said. “We will never give up the defendant’s right by any coercion,” he said decisively.

But as long as negative views of the defense team linger in the public mind, Watanabe said, he is unsure of whether it would be wise for all of Asahara’s lawyers to reveal their names, as public reaction may affect their work. Currently only three of them, including Watanabe, have publicly acknowledged their appointment to the guru’s defense.

The trial’s pace — three to four full-day sessions a month — has been too fast to allow them to fully prepare for each session while working for other clients, he said. Watanabe said that aside from Asahara’s trial, he currently has about 40 cases pending.

Asahara reportedly has refused to meet with his lawyers on several occasions. Watanabe declined to comment on how often the defense team meets with him, but said the lawyers have experienced difficulty in relating to the former cult leader. “Forming a relationship with a client is one of the most difficult aspects of (a lawyer’s) work. If we can build mutual trust, it’s all right. But even if we cannot, we still have to work for the client,” he said.

He said the lawyers’ relationship with Asahara is improving judging by his more responsive behavior to their cautions over his remarks in the courtroom. “One time, he completely refused (to heed our caution). But lately we have felt that we may be able to communicate with him,” he said.

Watanabe blames the high pace of the sessions for Asahara’s strange behavior in the courtroom. “Up until last fall, when we (the prosecution and defense) started examining witnesses, he appeared to trust us,” Watanabe said. But listening to the detailed testimony of his former followers and other witnesses without having had enough time to recall the facts in his own mind, Asahara appeared to become confused, Watanabe said.

Asahara often mumbles throughout the sessions, though his voice is barely audible in the gallery. Watanabe said the cult leader is talking to the prosecutors, his own lawyers and former followers and playing their roles himself. “He may be trying to spark his memory by talking to himself because he cannot read (about the events) in a diary or some such document because of his weak eyesight,” he said.

Concerning the possibility of Asahara undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, Watanabe said the lawyers should prepare for anything but it is still premature to contemplate a test on him now. Though Watanabe declined to give detailed comments on his client, he said Asahara gave the impression of a man “having many sides” and a difficult client to serve.

“I also think he has a sharp eye for observing people,” he said, adding that he had an amazing grasp on the personalities of his followers. Watanabe said he will not dwell on how long the trial may continue. “The bench says it may take 10 years, but I don’t think it will take that long,” he said.

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