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For the first time since the trial of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara began at the Tokyo District Court about 3 1/2 years ago, there was no need Friday to draw straws for seats at the guru’s hearing.

The day marked the 133rd hearing for the head cultist, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.

When his trial opened on April 24, 1996, 12,292 people lined up for a chance at 52 seats, the largest figure on record. On Friday, there were exactly 52 people who wanted to sit in on the day’s hearing.

According to the district court, in recent months there have been several days when less than 100 people have shown up.

However, there have still been several young people believed to be Aum followers sitting in the front row to observe the proceedings, court officials said.

Some observers said the decline in the number of people coming to Asahara’s hearings may be related to the fact that the cult is being backed into a corner by authorities, and cultists may be afraid to appear in public.

In the 133rd hearing for the guru, former cultist Yoshihiro Inoue testified in detail how Asahara ordered him and five other Aum members to murder Hiroyuki Nagaoka, chairman of an anti-Aum group, by spraying VX gas at him as he left his home in Tokyo on Jan. 4, 1995. Nagaoka was seriously injured but survived the attack.

“The cult and its members, including myself, committed the VX gas incident under the name of truth and salvation,” said Inoue, the cult’s former intelligence chief. “I apologize to the victims. Aum was nothing but a group of deceptive people.”

Asahara’s trial shifted to three deadly VX gas cases on Thursday, pushing the number of crimes the court has dealt with so far to nine out of the 17 for which Asahara was indicted.

The second VX-related case is the alleged killing of Tadahito Hamaguchi, suspected by Asahara of being a police informant, by six cultists under Asahara’s order in December 1994.

The guru also ordered seven Aum members to kill Noboru Mizuno in December 1994 by spraying the lethal gas outside his Tokyo home, prosecutors allege. Mizuno had been protecting a former Aum member, they said.

Hamaguchi died in the poisoning, while Mizuno was seriously injured.

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