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Sunday, March 7, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Levitation, drug claims and, er, melons blur reality in Asahara trial


The sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system that the religious cult Aum Shinrikyo carried out exactly nine years ago this month is often cited as the first mass terrorist strike against civilians, and like al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Aum's former guru Shoko Asahara is accepted as the mastermind behind the crime his followers perpetrated.

Asahara's conviction and death sentence was a done deal the minute he was arrested in front of the entire nation in 1995. His long, drawn-out trial, which ended Feb. 27, played like farce and the press coverage of the 257 Tokyo District Court sessions focused on these farcical aspects, which centered on Asahara's bizarre behavior.

The sentence has not resulted in any kind of closure. Though the victims have said that it is what they wanted, they remain bitter and frustrated. A resident of the Yamanashi village where Aum manufactured sarin told an NHK reporter that Asahara should be executed 50 times, and the brother of a woman paralyzed in the subway attack told this newspaper that "the death penalty is not enough."

A decade after the fact, Asahara is still filling the role of devil incarnate. Considering all the money and time spent on the case, the media and the public might have moved beyond their searing hatred of the guru toward some understanding of what really took place, but that hasn't happened.

Throughout the trial the media generally treated Asahara's defense as little more than a sop to due process, since taking the defense strategy seriously might have offended the victims. The position of Asahara's lawyers was that the guru's senior disciples carried out the sarin attack and other murders attributed to Aum on their own, and that Asahara neither ordered nor approved them.

In the March 1 issue of Aera, attorney Yoshihiro Yasuda, who was the head of Asahara's defense team until 1997 and often the only person allowed to talk to the guru, explained some of what went on backstage at the circus. He said that the trial was certainly "abnormal," but the abnormalities looked different from his side of the flashbulbs. The prosecutors, he explained, had a "scenario" that they wanted to build up, part of which was that Asahara was a hypocrite who lived in luxury while his followers were forced to be ascetics. The media were somehow fed a story that Asahara was ordering expensive melons in jail, but Yasuda said he didn't.

Early on, according to Yasuda, the police offered Asahara a deal: If you admit to the charges, we will not ban Aum. He started confessing, but later retracted the confession, realizing it was coercion. The retraction was reported as another example of the guru's erratic behavior, and Yasuda advised his client not to talk to the prosecutors any more.

In 1996, Asahara's closest disciple, Yoshihiro Inoue, testified for the prosecution that he overheard the guru order the sarin attack. Yasuda naturally wanted to cross-examine Inoue, but Asahara forbade it, saying that since Inoue was "enlightened" anyone who cross-examined him would die. Yasuda asked for a delay to convince Asahara to agree, but the judge turned him down. He went ahead with the cross-examination and Asahara became very upset in court. The media interpreted his behavior as "drug flashbacks." After that, the guru stopped talking to anyone, including his lawyers.

Yasuda was forced to quit the team because of an unrelated legal problem, but while he worked for Asahara he took the job seriously. "I was appointed to protect his rights," he told Aera. Some of his advice sounds bizarre -- he suggested that Asahara demonstrate in court his claimed ability to levitate -- but often it was practical. It was Yasuda who convinced Asahara to quit as Aum's leader.

To anyone who followed the case objectively, Asahara was a deluded monomaniac surrounded by ambitious disciples who extrapolated his craziest notions into murder. Eleven of them have received death sentences for carrying out the crimes that Asahara has now been convicted of masterminding. The judges felt that, whatever the guru's power over them, the 11 possessed enough presence of mind to understand what they were doing and therefore should be punished as the perpetrators of those crimes.

An article in last week's Shukan Post by Yuzo Saki mentions a letter written by one of those disciples, Tomomasa Nakagawa, who was Asahara's personal physician. In the letter, sent from prison to Kyodo News, he admitted that it was the corps of "elite disciples" who were responsible for Aum's crimes. "Anyone can be eccentric," Nakagawa said, "but an eccentric guru cannot operate without equally eccentric followers." Another follower, Ikuo Hayashi, said, when asked by lawyers how he, a trained heart surgeon, could believe some of the outlandish things that Asahara told him: "I am an expert in one thing, and completely ignorant about everything else."

Asahara is certainly the cause of a great deal of suffering, but based on the results of the trial it's difficult to tell where his monomania ended and his criminal actions began. The only proof of his conspiracy to carry out mass murder is in the testimony of some disciples. Much more needs to be revealed before the nation achieves closure, but since the only agenda is demonizing a man who can't be demonized any further there is little chance of ever achieving it. After eight years of one of the most important and expensive criminal trials in Japanese history, Saki says, "We haven't learned anything."



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