Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara has refused to speak throughout much of his seven-year trial on charges related to the deadly 1995 sarin gas attack on Tokyo’s subway system, so it came as little surprise when he remained tight-lipped at Thursday’s session at the Tokyo District Court.
Nevertheless, the court, prosecutors and his defense agreed to hold another two question sessions before the prosecution demands punishment.
Asahara’s lawyers and presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa have encouraged him to speak of his role in the various cases, but the 48-year-old defendant has responded only with gestures, at times violently, as though trying to communicate in sign language.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is being tried on 13 charges, including murder and attempted murder, related to the March 20, 1995, sarin attack in Tokyo.
During the evidence corroboration session of his hearing, Asahara sat with his eyes closed and did not react when the judge said: “Defendant, defendant . . . the afternoon session starts at 1:15 (p.m.). You will be questioned then. Do you understand?”
During questioning by his three lawyers, Asahara occasionally reacted fiercely, indicating that he was listening to what they were saying.
When a lawyer noted that Asahara once called himself a savior during a sermon, declaring himself Christ by his own interpretation of the Bible, Asahara threw his arms in the air and made gestures as if grabbing at something unseen.
Other tactics have included telling Asahara that it was his responsibility as the cult’s leader to speak out, at least for those being tried as his accomplices; trying to stir memories of his youth with questions regarding his decision to turn to religion; and asking him about Armageddon, which Asahara spoke of when criticizing the U.S.
In one of his sermons, Asahara once called the U.S. “a tyrant that treated Japan as its colony.”
Using this in an attempt to provoke a response, one lawyer explained the likely U.S.-led war on Iraq and asked, “Is this the situation you have called Armageddon?”
Asahara gestured, but maintained his silence.
The 251st hearing Thursday came after witness testimony sessions that lasted for five years through Feb. 28. If Asahara says nothing for two more sessions, prosecutors will likely present their closing statement and demand punishment by April 24.
Asahara has not spoken in court since November 1999, when he testified at the trial of three cult figures. He was talkative at his first trial session in April 1996, speaking for five minutes about his state of mind, but has since disrupted court sessions by babbling incoherently, often causing him to be removed from the courtroom.
In April 1997, in a barely intelligible mixture of English and Japanese, Asahara said, “I have already been found not guilty” in 16 out of the 17 cases for which he has been indicted.
Now, he reportedly will not speak with his lawyers, even outside the courtroom.
At a news conference after the day’s session, victims of Aum’s attacks and their families said it was regrettable that Asahara did not speak.
Shizue Takahashi, whose husband died in the subway attack, asked, “Does this man realize whose trial it is?” It’s a waste of time to hold any more sessions.”
However, Hiroyuki Nagaoka, who represents a group of people whose family members have become cult followers and was himself attacked by cultists using deadly VX gas, said: “Even now, youths are being lured into the cult by smooth-talking cult executives. To save such people, I strongly ask Asahara to say just one thing in the end — that he was wrong.”
Asahara is indicted on 13 counts, including seven of murder. The 1995 sarin attack killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000.
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