Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara’s defense counsel began its arguments Thursday in his Tokyo District Court trial on charges of murder and other offenses related to the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack and other crimes.

The trial of Asahara, 47, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, began more than six years ago, and in January prosecutors finished presenting their case. Asahara stands accused of 13 crimes, including seven murders ,and masterminding the subway attack and a deadly sarin attack the previous year in Nagano Prefecture.

The defense team is expected to take at least a year to complete its presentation of evidence, and the prosecution is expected to demand a sentence for Asahara by the end of 2003.

In their opening statement at the 222nd session of the trial, the defense team contested the government’s claims, including that Asahara issued orders for senior cultists to commit crimes.

“Matsumoto is a sincere person of religion who was trying to spread his religious faith,” one of his lawyers said in the opening statement. “The crimes were committed by his followers, who misunderstood his religious doctrine.”

The defense will prove that the disciples’ misunderstanding and their states of mind led to the crimes, the lawyer said.

The defense team asked for sessions for delving into the background leading to the cult committing the crimes.

The defense applied to summon as witnesses Fumihiro Joyu, 39, the current leader of Aum, Asahara’s wife, Tomoko Matsumoto, 43, and 16 others. The defense also sought to have admitted as evidence videotapes of Asahara preaching.

The guru’s trial began in April 1996, and in April 1997, Asahara pleaded not guilty to all the charges except for one of attempted murder. However, he has refused to consult with his court-appointed lawyers throughout the six years of the trial so far.

Prosecutors summoned 163 witnesses to the court. Among them, senior Aum figures testified that Asahara instructed them to carry out the subway attack and other crimes. Many of the cult figures have been convicted of carrying out their crimes on Asahara’s orders.

The March 20, 1995, subway nerve gas attack killed 12 people and injured over 5,000.

Although prosecutors believe Asahara was involved in many more crimes, including illegal drug manufacturing, they have decided to drop charges other than those related to the 13 counts he currently stands accused of so that court proceedings do not drag on for many more years.

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