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Thursday, Aug. 21, 1997

Asahara trial like an ongoing soap


Staff writer

Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara's trial has taken several twists in the past seven months, with the man at the center of the matter speaking out in sometimes incomprehensible English while his lawyers criticize the frequency of the hearings, leading to their boycott of one session.

Since the trial opened in April last year, 42-year-old Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has not entered a plea over his alleged involvement in 17 criminal cases. The counts he is facing include charges that he masterminded the March 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system that left 12 people dead and 3,795 injured, and the deadly sarin attack the previous June in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture.

Since last fall, some of his former disciples have testified against him in court. Asahara, for his part, has disrupted proceedings by mumbling and demanding to speak about the crimes he is accused of committing.

He was ejected from the courtroom twice in February after his unruly behavior disrupted the proceedings.

In an April session, Asahara was allowed to express his views on all of the charges against him after two of the four judges hearing his trial were replaced in a personnel reshuffle.

But in his statement, barely intelligible in both English and Japanese, Asahara said he had "already been found not guilty" in 16 of the 17 cases for which he is being tried.

Asahara commented on each case, speaking in a mixture of broken English and Japanese and ignoring a request by the presiding judge to speak only in his native tongue.

He said he had issued an order to abort the Tokyo subway nerve gas attack but was ignored by followers who carried it out anyway. He also denied ever ordering the November 1989 murder of Yokohama lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who represented families seeking to get relatives out of the cult.

Sakamoto, his wife and 1-year-old son are believed to have been killed at their home. Confessions by followers of the cult led police to their bodies, buried in separate locations in the mountains of central Honshu.

Standing before the witness stand, Asahara acted as if he were speaking with someone else, uttering in English "really?" which he would then answer with "yes."

Chief attorney Osamu Watanabe said after the session that Asahara's statement would not immediately affect the defense team's strategy.

No one on the team had anticipated that Asahara would address the court in English, he said, adding that he had no idea why he had done so.

Meanwhile, discord between Asahara's 12 lawyers and the Tokyo District Court worsened, with the frequency of the trial sessions being the main point of contention.

In early March, the court-appointed lawyers submitted a letter of resignation, saying they could not provide their client with the necessary defense given the pace of the hearings -- four per month. But the court rejected their request to step down, prompting the team to boycott a session in March.

Presiding Judge Fumihiro Abe has also demanded that the defense team clarify its complaints. "It will take more than 10 years to conclude the trial at the current pace" at the district court level, the judge said.

But the lawyers have insisted they do not have an obligation to detail their points of contention and argued that the court's attitude in placing emphasis on schedule over substance is wrong.

Although the defense team has declined to comment on how often it meets with its client, observers say Asahara has refused to meet his lawyers, leaving them frustrated and unable to fully prepare for his hearings.

Recent sessions have dealt with the Sakamoto slayings. Witnesses who testified for the prosecution include cultists also on trial for the killings who have since confessed and implicated Asahara, and the deputy editor of the Sunday Mainichi, a weekly magazine that featured stories on the cult in October 1989 and subsequently attracted Aum's ire.

Kazuaki Okazaki, 36, and Kiyohide Hayakawa, 47, both formerly close disciples of Asahara, detailed how he ordered the murder of Sakamoto and how the crime was carried out.

At both proceedings, Asahara repeatedly interrupted the testimony, to accuse, for example, the witnesses of lying, prompting his ejection from the courtroom.

Hayakawa, at times apparently unable to concentrate on the prosecutors' questions because of Asahara's behavior, suddenly started sobbing and lowered his head as he watched from the witness stand as his former guru was removed from the court.

Okazaki testified without any sign of emotion and showed no apparent response to Asahara, despite the cult leader shouting such retorts as "I didn't say that!"

Okazaki testified that he and the other five accused perpetrators forced their way into the Sakamotos' home on Asahara's orders. Okazaki said he held the lawyer's neck from behind with his right hand as Tomomasa Nakagawa, another senior Aum member, injected a lethal dose of chemical into the victim's lower back.

Other cultists killed Sakamoto's wife and son, he claimed.

Hayakawa testified that when the team carried the bodies out of the apartment, Nakagawa was laughing insanely, saying, "I killed the kid." Hayakawa said he tried to calm him by saying that all of them were responsible for the slayings.

Okazaki, who fled the cult a few months after the Sakamoto family disappeared, told the court how he blackmailed Aum, successfully extorting 8.3 million yen from the cult while in hiding by threatening to expose the sect's crimes.

Asahara's lawyers consider Okazaki to be one of the most important witnesses in the Sakamoto case and have already had him on the stand for five full days of cross-examination.

They have asked him detailed questions about his statement and pointed to inconsistencies between his testimony and depositions submitted by other cultists.



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