High-profile lawyer cleared of obstruction


Lawyer Yoshihiro Yasuda, chief attorney of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara and the country’s leading crusader against the death penalty, was acquitted Wednesday of obstructing the compulsory seizure of rent income used by clients as collateral.

The Tokyo District Court acquitted Yasuda, 56, of conspiring with two clients to conceal 200 million yen by directing tenants of two buildings in Minato Ward, Tokyo, to pay their rent to two dummy companies between 1993 and 1996.

Prosecutors claimed Yasuda and the Singaporean president of the real estate company that owned the buildings did this to prevent moneylenders from seizing rental income. They had demanded a two-year prison term for the lawyer.

The president and his son were found guilty of hiding the income based on advice from Yasuda.

They have appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.

Presiding Judge Masaaki Kawaguchi said Wednesday that Yasuda’s advice to his clients was within the bounds of the law.

He said prosecutors wrongly charged Yasuda and the president in connection with a separate 200 million yen embezzlement that involved four officials of the real estate firm.

The judge criticized prosecutors for attempting to “unfairly” hide evidence that pointed to Yasuda’s innocence in the trial and making a company official testify against him in exchange for their waiving embezzlement charges.

When the judge announced Yasuda’s acquittal, more than 70 supporters in the gallery cheered until the judge called for silence. Many, including some of Yasuda’s defense attorneys, openly wept.

Prosecutors said they will appeal the acquittal.

Yasuda was arrested in December 1998 and held for 10 months despite repeated requests for bail by his lawyers. He is still registered as Asahara’s chief attorney but has not appeared in the guru’s trial since his release on bail in September 1999.

Yasuda maintained his innocence throughout the five-year trial, claiming the charges against him were fabricated by prosecutors. More than 1,200 lawyers registered their names as his defense team to demonstrate their trust in him.

After the acquittal, Yasuda told a news conference he could not have anticipated such an “accurate and objective” ruling, adding that his experiences in defending innocent defendants had made him believe it was “impossible to expect justice from the current courts.”

Yasuda has said his arrest was politically motivated, with prosecutors either aiming to remove him from Asahara’s defense team or quiet his campaign against capital punishment.

He also said they may have wanted to send a message to other lawyers to refrain from actively trying to help debtors of “jusen” mortgage lenders escape asset seizures by Resolution and Collection Corp., which took over the nonperforming loans from seven failed jusen.

The company Yasuda tried to help was a major borrower from two of the jusen.

On Wednesday, Yasuda expressed his desire to immediately resume his law practice but said he has no plans to participate in Asahara’s trial, which is set to end in February.