After a 7 1/2-year trial, the chief lawyer defending doomsday cult guru Shoko Asahara, charged with masterminding the 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subway, is about to wrap up his case and await a verdict, which may come in February.
If convicted for the rush-hour attack, which killed a dozen people and injured thousands, an earlier deadly sarin attack and other heinous crimes, Asahara could be hanged. But lawyer Osamu Watanabe said he will appeal if a death sentence is handed down, and that could add additional years before the case is concluded.
“The trial started with the assumption that Asahara’s group was a bunch of murderers,” Watanabe said in an interview earlier this week. “Asahara’s responsibility as the leader of the religious group and his criminal responsibility are two different things.”
Watanabe also claimed the three-judge tribunal at the Tokyo District Court has been excessively lenient toward the prosecution — an allegation often leveled against a judicial system in which more than 95 percent of all defendants are found guilty.
Along with the March 20, 1995, nerve gas attack, Asahara is charged with planning and ordering several other killings, assaults and kidnappings that resulted in 27 deaths.
The involvement of members of Aum Shinrikyo, which Asahara founded and built into a cult that at its height claimed as many as 30,000 followers, has already been proved in court.
Ten of Asahara’s top lieutenants have been sentenced to hang for their roles in the subway attack and other cult-related crimes, including the 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that killed seven. Another verdict is pending that could lead to capital punishment.
But throughout the trial, Watanabe and his team have argued that Asahara, though worshipped as a living god by his disciples, was not responsible and that his followers acted on their own. The defense has stressed that he was not at the scene of most of the attacks.
Watanabe, a well-known human rights advocate and outspoken opponent of the death penalty, said he would appeal such a sentence.
He conceded that public opinion is overwhelmingly against Asahara’s defense team, and said that has tainted the proceedings.
The defense has faced other complications as well.
Asahara fired his first private lawyer on the eve of the original trial start date in October 1995. The court then appointed him a 12-member legal team, headed by Watanabe, but Asahara refused to discuss the case — or even speak — with them. The trial finally began in April 1996.
In court, Asahara never testified intelligibly or showed remorse. Instead, he has dozed off, mumbled incoherently and made bizarre motions. He remained silent during recent sessions when he was allowed to make a statement.
It is not known whether he intends to say anything Thursday, when the court is expected to offer him a last chance to speak.
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