A former member of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult pleaded not guilty to almost all charges against him, including murder, during the first day of a high-profile trial at the Tokyo District Court on Friday.
The trial of Katsuya Takahashi, 56, revisits the fatal terrorist attack on Tokyo’s subway system in 1995 that was masterminded by the cult, and represents the first scrutiny of the case under the lay judge system, introduced in 2009.
The trial is expected to last four months, with a verdict likely at the end of April, according to local media reports.
Takahashi stands accused of involvement in four heinous crimes orchestrated by the cult during its heyday in the early 1990s, including the sarin gas attack on Tokyo subway trains that killed 13 people and left thousands ill.
The charges against him include murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and solitary confinement resulting in death, destruction of corpses and violation of the Explosives Control Act.
“I didn’t know it was sarin that (we sprayed),” Takahashi said of the 1995 attack.
“I didn’t plot murder with anybody,” he added, clad in a black business suit and looking much thinner and more worn-out than when he was finally arrested in June 2012 after 17 years on the lam.
Takahashi’s arrest followed those of two other long-term fugitives, Makoto Hirata and Naoko Kikuchi. Of the three, Takahashi is the only one accused of direct involvement in the sarin attack.
Takahashi is thought to have been the driver for one of the senior cultists who sprayed the gas. Since the plan required close coordination from everyone, however, Takahashi will remain accused of murder, a source said.
Throughout the Friday session, Takahashi’s defense lawyer emphasized the mind-set that pervaded the cult, in which guru Shoko Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, brainwashed his disciples into carrying out the heinous attack under the pretext of attaining heightened spirituality. His lawyer used that logic to downplay Takahashi’s culpability.
Takahashi is also accused of participating in the murder of a company employee in December 1994 by again acting as the driver for senior cultists who sprayed extremely toxic VX gas over the victim from behind.
In January the following year, Takahashi allegedly aided in another gas attack by a fellow Aum member. The victim, Hiroyuki Nagaoka, was badly injured and narrowly escaped death after 60 days of medical treatment.
Takahashi has maintained his innocence on the grounds that he was unaware of how deadly the gas was and did not intend to kill anybody.
He is also suspected to have played a crucial role in kidnapping Tokyo notary Kiyoshi Kariya in 1995 by shoving him into a getaway car. Takahashi has admitted to that, but has argued his crime, if any, boils down to aiding the kidnapping. He denied involvement in the fatal drugging of Kariya.
He claims that was perpetrated by other cultists later.
In May of 1995, Takahashi allegedly sent a parcel bomb to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office — a high-profile incident that cost then-Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima’s secretary all of the fingers on his left hand.
Takahashi pleaded not guilty to the attempted murder charge stemming from that incident, on the grounds that there was no malice intended and that the bomb wasn’t powerful enough to kill anyone.
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