Aum Shinri-kyo and Related Controversies
The trial of Aum Supreme Truth cult founder Chizuo Matsumoto, 48, also known as Shoko Asahara, at the Tokyo District Court, which has taken seven years so far, showcases the difficulty of speeding up court procedures.
Government reforms planned for the judicial systems call for all first-stage trials to be finished within two years and for the introduction of a mixed jury system, in which members of the public will participate in criminal trials with judges.
After the reforms are implemented, a lengthy trial such as Matsumoto's would not be tolerated. In addition to its length, Matsumoto's trial highlighted other tasks reforms need to tackle.
Matsumoto's trial took 254 hearings from the beginning to the prosecutor's demand for the death penalty Thursday, and is seen a prime example of over-lengthy trials, along with that of Hiromasa Ezoe, who was found guilty in the Recruit bribery scandal after 322 hearings held over more than 13 years.
One difference between the two cases is that even under a reformed system, the Recruit case would not have had a mixed jury, while Matsumoto's probably would have, because the series of crimes committed by Aum resulted in many deaths.
The government's draft plan of a mixed jury system listed three following types of cases to be tried under the system:
- Cases that the law requires to be tried by three judges in consultation, except civil strife cases. The stipulation applies to cases in which the minimum punishment under the law is one year in prison.
- Cases that can carry sentences of death or indefinite prison terms.
- Cases in which the defendant is charged with intentionally causing death.
The Recruit case did not fall into any one of these categories, but all 13 charges on which Matsumoto is being tried fall into all three.
Under the mixed jury system, the court would not have the power to sequester members of the public for jury duty for a long period of time, so it is thought that the maximum period a trial could take would be a month or so.
Matsumoto's is a rare case, and it is virtually impossible under current trial methods to finish such a large-scale trial, in which more than 10 causes of action are being handled, within a short period.
So how would a case like Matsumoto's be handled under a mixed jury system?
Legal experts point out that causes of action--crimes to be prosecuted--should be limited or taken up in separate trials.
Initially, the Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office indicted Matsumoto on 17 charges. The indictments covered 27 murder victims and about 3,900 people who were injured.
But the prosecutors later changed the causes of action, limiting the number of injured covered by the indictments to 18 to speed up court proceedings. Prosecutors also withdrew indictments on four cases related to illegal production of stimulants and other drugs.
These actions are rare for prosecutors, but a senior Tokyo District Court official said, "Court officials said there were too many indictments from the beginning."
Matsumoto's lawyers also criticized prosecutors, saying that a speedy trial would be impossible with 17 indictments.
But a senior Tokyo District Public Prosecutors Office official said: "During the investigation, the possibility that Matsumoto had engaged in many other crimes emerged. Choosing just 17 was difficult."
Looking at a precedent in the United States, which has a jury system, prosecutors in the 1995 bombing of a federal government building in Oklahoma indicted the defendant only for the murders of eight federal government employees, although 168 people were killed. The murder of federal employees carries harsher penalties than the murder of members of the public.
In Japan, however, "Taking the feelings of victims and their families into consideration, it's hard to limit the number of indictments in cases where people were killed," a Japan Federation of Bar Associations official said.
Another problem arises over how to decide punishment if separate trials are held for a single defendant.
One judge with many years on the bench said: "Drastic changes must be made in the system. For example, each separate trial should first judge whether the defendant is guilty, and then sentences should be handed down for all guilty verdicts at the last stage."
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said, "It must be a complicated case, but seven years is too long," after hearing of the death penalty demand for Matsumoto on Thursday evening.
"Trials must be more speedy, which is why I'm tackling judicial reforms," he told reporters at the Prime Minister's Office.
The crimes perpetrated by the disciples of Shoko Asahara and those allegedly committed by the Aum Shinrikyo guru himself were the product of one man's whimsical impulses and not a concerted quest for power, according to journalist Shoko Egawa.
Egawa has covered the cult extensively since the days when few people were aware of its criminal activities.
Helping mold the prevalent image of the group, accused cultist Yoshihiro Inoue, in court testimony in 1997, claimed that Asahara's final objective was "to control the world by dispersing sarin in Japan and the United States, murdering the Japanese Emperor and winning over Russia with bribes."
For this purpose, the cult produced anthrax, sarin, VX and LSD, as well as built bombs, rifles and even a crude submersible, according to testimony by Inoue and other cultists.
According to Egawa, however, everything was done as a result of Asahara's impulsive nature.
"While a normal person would think of the consequences of his actions, Asahara just wanted things on impulse, very shortsightedly," she said.
As a result, Aum followers acting on Asahara's orders moved rashly, making their crimes so obvious it was hard to believe, Egawa said. Ironically, she added, this had the effect of delaying police investigations into the cult.
"The 1989 murder of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family, for example, occurred just as Sakamoto was stepping up his criticism of Aum. One of the killers even dropped the cult's badge at the murder site," she said. "There was a belief that Aum could not have committed the crime because it was too obvious.
"Police may also have seen it that way, since they initially focused their investigations in a completely different direction."
While people often wonder why "elite" members of society were attracted to Asahara, including those who went to prestigious institutions like the University of Tokyo and Kyoto University, Egawa said it makes sense when the cult's system of mind control is taken into account.
Deprived of food or sleep while being forced to undergo long hours of ascetic training, the cultists were drained of willpower. Some were placed in solitary confinement and forced to listen to recordings of Asahara's sermons at high volumes. There were also rituals in which cultists were given LSD, then made to meditate in a cell with a photo of the guru.
"The cultists eventually reached a state where, even if they felt their actions were wrong, they would automatically shake off such misgivings, thinking: 'This is training to rid me of doubt. The order cannot be wrong, because only Asahara sees the whole picture.' "
But even if the cultists still believed what they were doing was wrong, it was difficult for them to return to their earlier lives, Egawa said. They often had nowhere to go as all their assets had been given to the cult, and many had cut contact with friends and family.
Some stayed remained in the cult out of fear, she added, citing court testimony of cultist Takashi Tomita in 1997. Tomita explained how a friend, Toru Nakamura, died in 1994 from torture in the name of "training," but was initially reported as an "accident."
"According to Tomita, Nakamura, who had a girlfriend in the cult, asked Asahara to let her leave the cult with him, after he found out that she would be forced to sleep with Asahara as part of her training," said Egawa.
Asahara agreed on condition that Nakamura go through training involving bathing in hot water. Nakamura was forcibly bathed in 50 degree water and later of died of his burns.
"Such experiences made cultists fear that the same thing could happen to them," Egawa said. Police investigations show that apart from the 27 murders for which Asahara is accused, at least 40 cultists have either lost their lives or disappeared since the cult was established in the 1980s, she added.
The Aum Supreme Truth cult currently operates 28 facilities that carry out its practices and promotional activities and about 120 residential facilities that house its followers in 17 prefectures, The Yomiuri Shimbun has learned.
The cult headquarters is housed in a five-story apartment building in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo. Almost all the rooms on the first and second floors of the building are occupied by the cult, and Fumihiro Joyu, the cult's top representative, has lived there since January 2001. More than 100 cult followers frequently visit the headquarters.
Residents of the building said they were often annoyed by noises and unpleasant aromas and music, which is apparently used during religious training, coming from the building.
One resident said: "Although I have complained to the cult, the situation has not improved. I can't stand it any more."
According to the Public Security Investigation Agency and the National Police Agency, the number of Aum followers who live in the cult facilities and away from their families amounted to about 650 as of the end of last year.
Most of them are believed to be long-term members who joined the cult before March 1995 when police raided the cult's then headquarters in Yamanashi Prefecture.
Meanwhile, 20 percent to 30 percent of the about 1,000 Aum followers living at home became members after a series of incidents believed to have been committed by members of the cult. The members reportedly include a large number of working people and students in their 20s.
In addition to their religious practices and promotional work, some Aum members are attempting to recruit new members for the cult through various astrology, yoga and martial arts Web sites that are operated as fronts for the cult without mentioning its name.
Many people who respond to the recruitment drives decline to join the cult after learning that the groups are affiliated with the cult, but others have been said to join.
Regarding the conflict between members of the cult and local residents, Yoshihide Sakurai, an associate professor of the Graduate School of Letters at Hokkaido University, said the cult had a "self-centered" attitude, although laws of religion are meant to allow freedom of activity.
Sakurai added: "It's no wonder local residents fear the cult. Cult members should realize the responsibility to alleviate residents' fears rests with them."
In early February, a 37-year-old former member of Aum Shinrikyo launched a Web site featuring transcripts of past lectures by the cult's founder, Shoko Asahara.
Within two months, the Web site, titled Aum Text Archive, attracted about 30,000 hits, nearly 30 percent of which were by current Aum members, according to the former cultist.
He later deleted the transcripts at the behest of the cult.
Having been implicated in a series of crimes, including the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, Aum has since renamed itself Aleph and is publicly trying to distance itself from Asahara, stating that it now advocates a new doctrine.
"(But) the access from the Aum followers suggests that they are now starving for direct messages from Asahara," said the former Aum member, who left the group in 2000.
"After all, Aum is a group whose disciplines and structure was formed on the premise of Asahara's presence at the top. Given that, it is amazing that the group still maintains hundreds of members years after Asahara's arrest (in 1995)."
Nearly eight years after he was placed under arrest, Asahara's marathon trial is finally inching toward a denouement.
On Thursday, prosecutors are expected to demand the death penalty for Asahara, who stands accused of masterminding the Aum crimes. The Tokyo District Court is expected to hand down a ruling early next year.
While the cult still boasts hundreds of followers, Asahara's long absence has apparently left even die-hard members wondering whether there is any point in preserving the group, whose doctrines and structures are largely based on those that he established.
In 1995, Aum had about 1,000 followers leading communal lives at its facilities, along with 10,000 other members who worked in mainstream society and provided financial support in the form of donations, according to the Public Security Investigation Agency.
Today, the cult boasts 522 communal followers, along with 672 other members who regularly visit the group's 21 facilities to engage in religious practices or seminars and to donate their income, according to an Aum report submitted to the agency in February.
Since 2000, the agency, operating under special legislation, has placed the cult's activities under 24-hour surveillance.
Meanwhile, the local governments and residents of certain neighborhoods in which Aum facilities are located have tried to force the cultists out of their communities.
With few youngsters now looking to join the cult, the average age of current members reportedly tops 35.
Asahara's refusal to speak about his alleged crimes -- or even enter an official plea -- during his trial has also disenchanted many followers, prompting them to abandon the cult, according to several Aum members.
"It is natural that the general public is still afraid of Aum unless Asahara, who is the only person who can address all the questions on the past crimes, fully explains why Aum committed the crimes," said one senior cultist.
"We have struggled amid public distrust, as well as with our own agony over why our senior members committed such crimes. I myself was disappointed with him."
Another cultist stated that everything tied to Aum, including its religious goals, doctrines, training programs and organizational structures, is based on Asahara's presence as leader, suggesting that the cult may be losing its relevance among followers.
He claimed that the number of followers who have reached the first stage of enlightenment and have managed to emancipate themselves from secular greed through their yoga training has declined sharply from the days when the followers were under the direct guidance of Asahara.
While no cult members appear to worship Asahara unconditionally today, many still view him as a superior yoga master, a great lecturer, or even an individual who harbors a "tremendous religious power."
"With the absence of Mr. Asahara, Aum has been losing its religious power and it will naturally vanish if it continues to do so," the follower said. "Probably, Aum should have either disbanded or started with a new discipline and a new system when he was arrested."
In January 2002, former Aum spokesman Fumihiro Joyu officially assumed leadership of the group, having completed a three-year prison term in 1999 for perjury and falsification of public documents.
But several Aum members admit that Joyu lacks the Asahara charisma that previously forged a bond between followers.
Hiromi Shimada, an expert on religious studies and a former professor at Japan Women's University in Tokyo, has written a book and articles on Aum.
He views the cult as one of a number of new religious groups and new-age movements that mushroomed during the bubble economy of the late 1980s and early 1990s and have since lost their significance.
Shimada described this scenario as a kind of antidote to Japan's mainstream culture of the time.
"In the bubble era, the mainstream culture was strong and looked overly materialistic, giving a clear identity to the counterculture, which usually emphasized spirituality," he said.
"The protracted economic slump has undermined the myth of progress toward a single goal and brought an era of more diverse values in which it is unlikely for such extreme groups as Aum to attract so many young people."
The Public Security Investigation Agency claims that Aum still poses a danger to society, thereby justifying its 24-hour surveillance strategy. Shimada, on the other hand, doubts that the cult has the ability or financial resources to pose an immediate public threat.
He added, nevertheless, that the surveillance policy should be maintained as long as the public fears and distrusts the group. Aum has repeatedly called for the suspension of surveillance activities through legal maneuvers and petitions submitted to the government.
"Like Asahara in his trial, Aum has never tried to respond to such public sentiments by fully addressing the question of why its members committed the heinous crimes and later attempted to cover up its involvement in them," Shimada said.
"This still gives me the impression that they may do anything to protect the group and it is reasonable that people are still fearful of the group."
His client slept through sessions of the trial. He mumbled and ranted in an odd mixture of Japanese and broken English, and refused to address the charges against him.
But attorney Osamu Watanabe, who has for the past seven years represented the doomsday cult guru charged with masterminding the 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways that sickened thousands, said he feels satisfied he made the best case he could ? and is hoping for an acquittal.
"Despite all the restrictions and pressure from the court, we did everything we thought was necessary and possible," Watanabe said Monday in an interview with The Associated Press. "And I'm proud that we were able to protect the defendant's rights."
The prosecution is scheduled to give its closing arguments ? and formally request the death penalty for cult guru Shoko Asahara ? at Tokyo District Court on Thursday.
The session will mark a major milestone in what has been an exceptionally long and complicated trial, even by Japan's slow court standards.
Along with the March 20, 1995, nerve gas attack, which left 12 dead and sickened thousands, Asahara is also charged with ordering a series of other killings, assaults and kidnappings.
Altogether, prosecutors say he was involved in 26 deaths.
In the gas attack, five top cultists carrying pouches of sarin nerve gas boarded separate cars on three subway lines that merged at a hub station underneath of Japan's government headquarters, and poked the bags with umbrellas, releasing the deadly gas.
Minutes later, thousands of passengers collapsed on platforms, gasping for air and coughing uncontrollably. Outside nearby stations more people, some unconscious, lie prone on sidewalks waiting for ambulances to arrive.
Investigators said the attack was an attempt to overturn the government, and was also aimed at diverting police attention from the group's other crimes.
Nine of Asahara's top lieutenants have already been sentenced to death for their roles in the subway attack and other cult-related crimes. If convicted, Asahara, who once claimed more than 10,000 followers worldwide, could also face death by hanging.
Watanabe's job has by any measure been a difficult one.
Asahara fired his first private counsel, whose eccentric personality and lack of experience raised doubts in the legal community, on the eve of what was to have been the start of his trial in October 1995.
The court then appointed a 12-member legal team for Asahara, headed by Watanabe, a well-known human rights advocate and outspoken opponent of the death penalty.
The subway attack and subsequent revelations of other brutal acts by members of Asahara's Aum Shinrikyo cult made him and his neo-Buddhist cult the focus of intense hatred and fear in Japan.
To make matters worse, Watanabe said, Asahara never offered his attorneys much help. He refused to discuss the case or even speak with them. When not maintaining a sullen silence, he seemed to revel in bizarre behavior in court, at times launching into incoherent tirades.
He kept silent during the three most recent sessions, however, when the court offered him the chance to make a statement.
"I really wanted him to say something because it was his last chance to say what was on his mind as a religious leader," Watanabe said. "I regret we couldn't establish communication with him."
The defense's case focused mainly on questioning whether Asahara had been directly linked to the gassing or other crimes by the mountain of depositions and confessions by members of Asahara's cult that was presented by the prosecution.
Watanabe also argued that the judge's handling of the case ? there are no jury trials in Japan ? had been swayed by public opinion. He said the prosecutors were allowed more leeway than they normally would be able to expect.
Still, he said he believes he made a strong case.
"As a defense lawyer, I can only say I believe he will be acquitted," Watanabe said.
One senior prosecutor, on the other hand, blamed the defense team for delaying justice by asking trivial questions and spending an inordinate amount of time on procedural matters.
"I must admit I believe the trial has been going on for too long," said Haruo Kasama, a deputy chief of the Tokyo District Prosecutor's Office.
Relatives of those who died say they are also angry at the length of the trial, and by Asahara's failure to offer some sort of apology over the 13 charges against him.
"I attended every single session eagerly, thinking Asahara might say something," said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband was a subway employee. "I think Asahara deserves 13 counts of death."
Court officials note Thursday's session will by no means be the end.
The defense is set to make its final arguments on Oct. 30 and 31, and the verdict isn't likely until late March of next year. Several more years could be consumed by an appeal, if one is filed.
Watanabe said he will not take on that task.
"I've done enough already, and I'll be 70 in September," he said.
Japanese prosecutors are to demand the death penalty for the leader of the Aum Supreme Truth cult whose followers used sarin nerve gas in an attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995.
After seven years, the trial of Shoko Asahara, 48, who is accused of inspiring a catalogue of crimes including the sarin attack that killed 12 passengers and injured thousands, is drawing to a conclusion. Asahara has failed to persuade prosecutors of his insanity despite 250 bizarre appearances in the Tokyo District Court.
The guru of the apocalyptic cult has repeatedly mumbled in what sounds like English, snatched at the air and refused to answer questions from his defence team. His lawyers have based their defence on attempting to portray Asahara as an aloof leader whose mystic pronouncements were misunderstood by his followers.
He has spoken intelligibly only once, to say that one charge against him should be downgraded. On many occasions he has slept through court sessions.
In a desperate final move, Asahara's lawyers put him on the stand three times in the past month - but instead of responding to them he stared at the floor or made as if to catch and throw something that only he could see.
His strange behaviour, however, has not convinced the court that he is insane and this Thursday public prosecutors plan to call for him to be hanged.
Nine of his followers have been sentenced to death in separate trials for murders that judges have accepted were carried out on his orders, but the slow pace of Asahara's trial has infuriated victims and their families. After the summing up, which has yet to begin, three judges will sift the evidence before pronouncing the verdict and sentence - probably later this year.
Shoko Egawa, a prominent critic of the Aum cult, whom members once attempted to murder, said: "It is wrong that cult members below Asahara have already been convicted when he must bear the most responsibility."
Ms Egawa, a journalist who has reported on Aum for 14 years, survived an attack by a cult member who pumped poisonous phosgene gas through her letterbox one night in 1994. She awoke just in time and her startled attacker fled.
Japan was shocked and enraged by Aum's activities and anger spilled out in court in recent weeks as people whose relatives were murdered addressed the panel of judges and begged that Asahara be hanged.
ne 64-year-old woman, whose husband was killed in the subway attack, said: "You stole our humble happiness and I can never forgive you, Asahara. You'll get the death penalty." Fusae Kobayashi, whose son died in a 1994 gas attack, said: "I cannot express the pain I have felt during these nine years. I would like to use these hands of mine to dish out to the defendant the same pain that he inflicted on my son and others."
The Aum attacks punctured much of modern Japan's self-confidence. Japanese were shocked that graduates of top universities flocked to the cult, turning their talents to manufacturing deadly weapons such as sarin instead of opting for steady jobs and comfortable lives.
The country was also stunned by the incompetence of the authorities, which failed to move against the cult, which has renamed itself Aleph, despite clear signs that it had turned violent long before the 1995 attack.
Justice Minister Mayumi Moriyama on Friday underscored the need for continued surveillance of Aum Shinrikyo, the cult that carried out the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and another deadly nerve gas attack the preceding year.
Moriyama's remarks came as she presented an annual report on Aum's activities to the Cabinet compiled by the ministry's Public Security Investigation Agency.
According to the report, Aum, which has changed its name to Aleph, had about 650 live-in followers and some 1,000 nonresident believers as of the end of December.
The cult maintains 28 facilities in 17 prefectures and about 120 dormitories, according to the report. It also has facilities in Russia, where there are about 300 followers, the agency said.
"There is still the danger that the group may engage in indiscriminate mass murder," Moriyama told the Cabinet. "Continued vigilance is therefore necessary."
For the latest report, the agency inspected 27 Aum facilities in 14 prefectures, including Kyoto, Osaka, Tokyo and Fukuoka, and made 42 reports on its investigations to 20 local governments.
Police last year searched 103 locations in 15 prefectures and arrested 20 Aum followers in connection with 16 cases. Some 5,600 items were confiscated as evidence.
The National Police Agency submitted an opinion statement to the security agency in November following a series of investigations into the cult.
Aum has been watched by the security agency in line with a law aimed at monitoring and cracking down on groups that have conducted indiscriminate mass murder during the past 10 years. Aum is the only group targeted at present.
The legislation stipulates that reports be submitted annually to the Diet through the Cabinet, and Friday's report is the fourth. The law, which took effect in December 1999, was extended for three years in February to allow for continued surveillance.
Several Aum members have been convicted in connection with the Tokyo subway sarin attack, which killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,000, the June 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, and for other heinous crimes. The trial of Aum founder Shoko Asahara is still going on.
On Thursday, the Tokyo District Court held the last questioning session for Asahara in the trial, which began in April 1996. Prosecutors are scheduled to close their case April 24, when they are expected to seek the death penalty.
AUM Shinrikyo "remains a danger of inflicting indiscriminate mass murder" according to a government report released Friday on the group that carried out the 1995 lethal gassing of the Tokyo subway system.
Last year, AUM followers took several steps to deter Public Security Investigation Agency inspectors.
They encoded computer data, hid videotapes of guru Shoko Asahara giving sermons beneath floors and in ceilings and covered up evidence of believers worshipping the accused mass murder.
Despite claims to the contrary, Asahara remains the focus of worship for AUM's followers, who still number in the thousands, including a band of 300 followers in Russia, according to a report on AUM's activities last year that was compiled by the National Police Agency and the Ministry of Justice.
As of last year, about 650 people were living in AUM facilities in Japan, while another 1,000 across the country professed to be followers of the cult that tried to bring on the Armageddon evil Asahara predicted would occur.
AUM still operates 28 bases across Japan and owns over 120 places where its members reside.
Public Security Investigation Agency officials have provided 54 municipalities across Japan with information about AUM followers.
Asahara is accused of ordering the use of lethal sarin gas on the Tokyo subway system in March 1995.
The gassing killed 12 and left thousands injured. Asahara is still standing trial in connection with the case, but several AUM members have admitted being involved in the attack, some of whom have been given the death penalty for their crimes.
Aum Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara on Thursday forfeited his final chance to respond to questions by his lawyers on his role in Aum crimes including the 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subway, maintaining his silence as his seven-year trial at the Tokyo District Court drew closer to a conclusion.
The court set April 24 as the date when prosecutors will demand a sentence. The prosecutors, who concluded they have done their best to prove that Asahara was the mastermind behind the sarin gas attack and other Aum crimes, are widely expected to demand the death penalty.
The court will hand down a ruling after the defense counsel gives the final arguments Oct 30 and 31.
Asahara, 48, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was indicted on charges in 13 criminal cases, including murder in the subway attack that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000.
Thursday's court proceedings were the third and final questioning session in the prolonged trial, and the examination of evidence was completed in Thursday's 253rd hearing.
"Former (Aum) executive members also say they want you to speak," a defense lawyer told Asahara in a bid to get the onetime guru to answer questions. But he kept mum, remaining seated with his head down.
Asahara also refused to answer questions by his court-appointed lawyers and Presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa on both previous questioning sessions March 13 and 27.
The last time he spoke in court was in November 1999 as a witness in the trial of a former senior Aum cultist. He then said he had not known that Aum possessed sarin.
Before Thursday's session, the defense lawyers said Asahara's condition might improve if he were allowed to meet two of his daughters, and urged the court to partially lift a ban on such meetings. But Ogawa refused, citing concerns that evidence might be destroyed.
In the morning before the questioning began, a total of eight Aum crime victims and relatives of those who died presented opinion statements to the court.
Asahara was first indicted in 17 criminal cases, in which 27 people died.
In February 1997, however, prosecutors reduced the number of people who suffered from sarin gas exposure mentioned in the indictment from about 4,000 to 18 to expedite the trial, which began in April 1996.
In October 2000, they also dropped charges against him in four criminal cases relating to Aum's alleged secret production of drugs.
Angry families of people who died in the 1995 Tokyo subway gassings carried out by AUM-Shinrikyo cult members heaped abuse at cult guru Shoko Asahara and demanded the death sentence for him Thursday at the 253rd hearing of his trial.
Testifying at the Tokyo District Court under the revised code of criminal procedure, families accused Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, of directing subordinates in the AUM-Shinrikyo cult to carry out the sarin gas attacks on Tokyo's subways that killed 12 and injured thousands.
One 64-year-old woman whose husband was killed in the gas attacks was first to testify.
"My husband, who had a strong sense of justice and cared for his family, was killed unjustly. Yet over a period of eight years the defendant has not admitted his guilt, and blames the incident on his subordinates," she said. "I cannot forgive him."
Speaking to Asahara from behind a partition, she said he deserved the death penalty.
"You stole our humble happiness and I cannot forgive you," she said."You have laid the blame for the crime on your followers, Asahara, you'll get the death penalty."
Another woman, Shizue Takahashi, 56, the wife of a subway worker who was killed, blasted Asahara for not speaking up at his hearings.
"If he thinks he will be deified by not speaking he's greatly mistaken," Takahashi said. "I want him to talk about the incident for the benefit of both victims and followers (of AUM)."
Others said they wanted to punish Asahara themselves.
"Almost nine years have passed since the incident, and I cannot express the pain I have felt during this time," said Fusae Kobayashi, whose son perished in the attacks. "I would like to use these hands of mine to dish out to the defendant the same pain that he inflicted on my son and others."
Asahara has remained largely silent at the hearings of his trials, ignoring questions presented to him and failing to cooperate with his own lawyers.
Prosecutors are expected to demand a sentence for Asahara on April 24, after questioning him in three trials but failing to obtain any response from him.
Several members of the AUM Shinrikyo cult, which is now calling itself Aleph, have already received death and prison sentences.
The new figurehead of the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult left Japan for Russia on Thursday in an apparent bid to shore up the loyalty of followers there.
The trip came amid expectations that prosecutors would demand death for Aum founder Shoko Asahara, 48, at his seven-year-old trial in two weeks' time.
Fumihiro Joyu, the 40-year-old former telegenic spokesman for the cult responsible for the 1995 deadly gas attacks on Tokyo subways, left on a Aeroflot plane from Narita airport, a public safety source in Tokyo said.
The Russia visit, expected to last for about a week, is his first overseas trip since Joyu was released from Japanese jail in December 1999 after serving a three-year jail sentence for perjury.
"We presume he is trying to tighten the reins on followers there (to prevent them leaving the cult) as the prosecution is expected to announce their demand for Asahara's penalty soon," said the source who declined to be named.
Since prosecutors are likely to demand capital punishment, Joyu "needs to prevent the followers from being shaken" and leaving the sect, the source said.
Japan's security authorities believe there still are about 300 Aum followers in Russia.
As one of the longest-serving disciples of Asahara, Joyu was in Russia running Aum's Moscow branch when the sect spread Sarin gas in crowded Tokyo subways in March 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands.
The sect has since officially deposed Asahara as its leader and vowed to fundamentally reform under the new name Aleph.
"I want to explain to old followers (the new policy of Aleph) and lead things in a good direction," Jiji Press quoted Joyu as saying at the airport.
Joyu used to say he worshipped Asahara as a "messiah." After his release from jail, however, he said he had lost faith in his guru because prophecies of Armageddon never came true.
Asahara has denied masterminding the Tokyo subway attack and has blamed his disciples, despite testimony from most followers that the offences were commited under his direction.
The cult's guru has made virtually no statement at his trial, which opened in April 1996, since January 1998 when he denied masterminding the Tokyo subway attack, apart from murmuring incoherently, and has often appeared to doze during proceedings.
He was given a last chance to speak on Thursday but has so far refused even to answer his own lawyers' questions.
On April 24, prosecutors are expected to sum up their case against Asahara who is charged with murder and various other crimes.
Nine of his disciples have so far been sentenced to death for their part in the Tokyo gas attack, another gassing in 1994 that killed seven people in the central Japan city of Matsumoto and other murders, including the strangling of the entire family of an anti-cult lawyer.
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