Lawyers representing Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara argued Thursday that their client is innocent of masterminding a series of grisly crimes, including two fatal sarin gas attacks.

The lawyers instead blamed Asahara’s followers in the doomsday cult.

On the first of two days of closing arguments at the Tokyo District Court, Asahara’s state-appointed defense counsel criticized prosecutors for rejecting Asahara’s status as a true religious leader and ignoring the possibility that his followers were to blame.

Asahara, 48, stands accused of masterminding 13 heinous crimes carried out by the cult that killed 27 people and injured thousands.

Seven are counts of murder, including fatalities in the sarin gas attacks in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994, and on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995, as well as the murder of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family in 1989.

The lawyers argued that Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was an ardent religious leader who gradually lost control over his followers and had no idea what they were up to.

They gave arguments for each of the cases for which he stands accused, claiming that many were carried out by his followers either arbitrarily or through the misinterpretation of his doctrines.

Osamu Watanabe, head of the defense counsel, said Asahara was only trying to pursue his mission as a religious leader. He blamed prosecutors and the media for distorting Asahara’s personality to create an image of a monster who ran a criminal group.

Prosecutors “never testified their assertions” during the trial, he said. “Do they really believe that so many followers would have been attracted (to Aum) if such was the case? Japan’s justice system cannot function if such (a manipulation of the social climate) is allowed.”

Watanabe also alleged that prosecutors deliberately ignored important court testimony by follower Shoichiro Sano, who said that many of the orders for the attacks came from Hideo Murai, a leading cult figure who was later killed by an extreme rightist.

The defense team argued that the November 1989 killing of the Sakamotos was the result of disciples’ arbitrary conduct. Followers Murai, Kazuaki Okazaki and Kiyohide Hayakawa carried out the murders without the guru’s consent, they said.

In some cases, the followers misinterpreted the expression “poa,” which Asahara defined as “bringing a person to a higher level,” as an order to kill.

Other than a few grunts, Asahara remained silent throughout Thursday’s session.

The defense team is expected to spend most of Friday going over their 814-page argument.

At the end of the two-day session, Asahara will be given a final chance to speak before a ruling is handed down Feb. 27.

Thursday’s session covered seven of the 13 charges against Asahara, including the Sakamoto murders and the Matsumoto sarin attack. Asahara’s involvement was denied in all cases.

Friday’s session will cover the remaining charges, including the Tokyo subway attack.

Of the 137 Aum followers who were indicted, two, including Asahara, are still being tried by the district court.

Ten cultists have so far been sentenced to death. All were directly involved in the murders. Nine are appealing their sentences. The tenth, Tomomasa Nakagawa, who was sentenced Wednesday, is expected to do likewise.

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