and TOMOKO OTAKEStaff writers

Thirty-one months and 99 hearings after Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara’s trial started, nobody is sure how long it will take before the verdict is reached on any of the 17 criminal cases for which he stands accused.

The trial — which marks its 100th session today — has been moving at a snail’s pace before the Tokyo District Court as the guru’s 12 court-appointed lawyers continue nitpicking cross-examinations of witnesses and evidence provided by prosecutors, with the points of contention left unclear.

Public interest in the trial appears to have dwindled. The number of people who lined up for the lottery for about 50 courtroom gallery seats dropped to 106 at the 99th session two weeks ago, from a record 12,292 at the guru’s first trial hearing, on April 24, 1996.

Public security authorities meanwhile warn that Aum is again expanding its activities and still refuses to disavow its blind faith in Asahara’s teachings.

Of the 17 cases for which Asahara, 43, has been indicted, the trial has so far covered only four — the 1995 Tokyo subway nerve gas attack, the 1994 nerve gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, the 1989 slayings of an anti-Aum lawyer and his family, and the lynching of an errant cultist in 1994.

Over the past 2 1/2 years of hearings, 90 witnesses, including 19 Aum figures, 47 representing police organizations, 14 doctors and coroners, and about 10 others, including employees of Teito Rapid Transit Authority, which runs the metropolitan subway system, have testified for the prosecution.

Many of the now-former cultists who allegedly conspired with Asahara — real name Chizuo Matsumoto — to carry out the crimes, testified about their involvement. Some claimed they thought their crimes were ordered by the guru.

While Asahara’s trial has dragged on, the court has convicted 113 of 136 Aum followers charged in connection with the raft of crimes allegedly committed by the cult. Two have been acquitted.

Of those found guilty, 64 were sentenced to prison, while most others received suspended jail terms.

In May, Ikuo Hayashi, Aum’s one-time doctor, was sentenced to life for his role in the subway gas attack. In June, Takashi Tomita was sentenced to 17 years in connection with the Matsumoto gas attack.

In October, the court sentenced Kazuaki Okazaki to death over his role in the 1989 murder of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and the attorney’s wife and infant son. Okazaki is the only Aum member sent to death row.

In each ruling, the court concluded that the defendant acted upon Asahara’s orders, based on the defendant’s admissions.

Asahara, however, has not made any confession, nor officially entered any plea on the 17 cases.

After a five-minute speech regarding his state of mind at his first trial hearing, Asahara remained silent until autumn 1996, when his former followers started testifying against him in his trial.

In an October 1996 trial session, Asahara abruptly and vaguely said that he would shoulder all the blame and asked the court to stop the scheduled cross-examination of a cultist who had earlier testified against the guru.

But later in the same session, Asahara claimed he is entirely innocent.

He has often disrupted other sessions, and was removed from the courtroom five times from November 1996 through February 1997. On one occasion, he said: “Please stop such a ridiculous thing. Please let me go. This is not a court. … This is a theater.”

In recent sessions, when experts, including doctors and coroners, were answering technical questions from prosecutors and lawyers, Asahara quietly sat on the defendant’s seat with his eyes closed, prompting judges to scold him to listen to the proceedings.

While his lawyers keep claiming the pace of the trial is too fast, prosecutors expressed concern late last year that they could spend the next 25 years subpoenaing witnesses because the lawyers had refused to agree on adopting statements and medical records of survivors of the subway attack as evidence.

To speed up the trial, prosecutors reduced the list of officially recognized survivors of the two nerve gas attacks from nearly 4,000 to a mere 18 last January, effectively reducing the counts of attempted murder, so that all the survivors would not be called to testify and face time-consuming cross-examinations.

But the defense has not changed its strategy. The lawyers continue checking all the claims prosecutors have made and grilling them thoroughly on all perceived weak points.

Prosecutors are arguing that Asahara, as absolute leader of the cult, ordered his followers, who blindly obeyed him, to carry out the crimes.

But to prove when and how Asahara gave the orders and why he did so — the points his lawyers consider crucial because the guru stands accused of “conspiring with” the perpetrators — depends heavily on the confessions and testimony provided by his followers, many of whom have already been convicted.

Although several of the cultists accused of perpetrating the subway gassing, for example, testified that it was their understanding that Asahara ordered the attack, they claimed they actually received the orders from other top cultists, making it difficult for prosecutors to clearly establish a link to the guru.

“During past proceedings, we found there was a gap between what prosecutors claimed in their opening statements concerning how Asahara conspired with other cultists and the facts as testified by the witnesses,” said Osamu Watanabe, chief attorney of the defense team.

Still, Watanabe admitted the defense team has been unable to decide on a clear policy over the trial because the lawyers are unable to communicate sufficiently with their client. Watanabe declined comment on some media reports that Asahara has refused to meet his lawyers since March 1997.

Watanabe rebuffed criticisms that the defense has gone into too much detail and should stop asking meticulous questions. Those who level such criticisms, he said, are in effect asking the lawyers to stop defending Asahara.

“We will continue asking all the questions we think are necessary,” he said, adding that the lawyers’ goal of clarifying what really happened does not run counter to the hopes of many of the survivors.

But at least some relatives of the victims have begun to show irritation over the slow pace of the trial.

Shizue Takahashi, whose husband, Kazumasa, a subway authority employee who was killed in the 1995 gas attack after he removed bags containing chemicals and wiped the deadly nerve agent off a subway car, said she has been reluctant recently to attend the trial.

Up to this fall, she attended almost every hearing, but recent proceedings made her suspect the guru’s lawyers were merely trying to delay the trial, prompting her to skip several sessions.

“There are people who are still suffering from the aftereffects of the attack,” she said. “In order to recognize them in society as victims of the gas attack, I hope the court will clarify this fact as early as possible.”

This would also be significant for people who still belong to Aum and those accused of the crimes, she added.

According to the Public Security Investigation Agency, Aum Shinrikyo, now stripped of its legal status as a religious group, has about 1,500 active members, including about 500 live-in followers scattered throughout Japan.

Of the more than 400 cultists arrested since the March 1995 subway gassing, 359 have been either released or have completed their sentences, and 165 of them have been seen frequently visiting cult facilities, the agency said at the end of August.

Writer Ryuzo Saki, who has covered the trial sessions of Asahara and other senior cultists, lashed out at the defense for its “textbook approach.”

“They are completely trying to push back the proceedings by asking extremely meaningless questions,” he said. “At one time, a defense lawyer was persistently picking on the prosecution for misspelling the name of the subway station exit ‘Toranomon-guchi’ as ‘Torano-guchi’ in its report.”

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