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Tuesday, Dec. 30, 1997

The Asahara Trial: Prosecutors face lifetime task


Staff writer

As the trials of Aum Shinrikyo members ended their second year, the most drastic step for 1997 came earlier this month when prosecutors trimmed the list of officially recognized survivors of two sarin gas attacks from nearly 4,000 to a mere 18.

The reason: the need for speedier trials.

The 20-month-old trial of Aum founder Shoko Asahara, 42, who stands accused of masterminding the attacks, which claimed 19 lives and injured 3,938, in addition to 15 other cases, found the number of those injured in the attacks too many to handle.

In a rare move, prosecutors announced they will reduce the list of victims of attempted murder on the indictments in the March 1995 sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system from 3,794 to 14, and from 144 to four in the June 1994 sarin attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. "Still, it will take at least seven or eight more years" for prosecutors to complete their arguments in some of the Aum trials, Kunihiro Matsuo, deputy public prosecutor, said when informing reporters of the decision.

The Tokyo District Prosecutor's Office filed for approval of the changes with the Tokyo District Court, where 17 cult followers are on trial in connection with the two attacks. Prosecutors had considered the move after Asahara's defense counsel refused to agree on adopting as evidence statements and medical records of the survivors of the subway attack, claiming the documents are insufficient evidence.

The refusal meant prosecutors were faced with summoning all 3,794 recognized survivors to testify. Matsuo said that at the current pace, prosecutors would spend the next 25 years subpoenaing the victims and doctors who treated them. "The deliberation period will be significantly shortened (by this new arrangement)," he said "But it will still take an enormous amount of time before the rulings are handed down."

He said prosecutors would ask the bench to speed up the trials by increasing the number of hearings. Currently, the court convenes four all-day hearings a month for Asahara's trial. Asahara's lawyers welcome the prosecutors' move, saying it is a necessary step in pursuing justice. "This is an issue that prosecutors should have carefully considered when they filed the charges," said Osamu Watanabe, Asahara's chief attorney.

In recent sessions, Asahara's counsel continued its meticulous questions against senior cult figures, focusing on the 1989 slayings of an anti-Aum Yokohama lawyer and his family. In the last few months, lawyers cross-examined Kazuaki Okazaki, 37, in 10 sessions and Kiyohide Hayakawa, 48, in six sessions. Both are among six Aum figures accused of murdering lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife, Satoko, and their 1-year-old son, Tatsuhiko, in November 1989.

The lawyers asked them detailed questions, reviewing every event that allegedly took place concerning the Sakamoto murders, apparently trying to disprove testimony by the accused cultists that they were simply following Asahara's orders. The two witnesses, both close aides to Asahara, reiterated that they had only tried to carry out Asahara's will.

Lawyers have also tried to highlight inconsistencies in the accounts of the cultists who have confessed to the crime. In particular, they seem eager to stress the discrepancies in the confessions by Hayakawa and Okazaki.

At one point, Hayakawa challenged Okazaki's testimony and alleged that Okazaki was trying to play down his role in the murders. But it is questionable whether the lawyers' nitpicking of every detail of the testimony has been effective.

Presiding Judge Fumihiro Abe often suggested during the proceedings that the lawyers pinpoint their questions. "Listening to your questions all day today, we wonder what you are trying to prove," he said at a December session. Asahara, meanwhile, often mumbled and seemed to fall asleep during the proceedings.

In the next hearing, scheduled for Jan. 16, he will be given an opportunity to speak as prosecutors present their revised version of the sarin attack indictments. It will be the first time for Asahara to speak in court since an April session, in which he was given a chance to state his opinions on all the charges against him after two of the four judges were replaced in a personnel reshuffle.

On that occasion, however, in a barely intelligible statement in both English and Japanese, Asahara said he had "already been found not guilty" in 16 of the 17 cases. Although defense lawyers have declined comment on how often they meet with their client, Asahara has reportedly refused to meet with them, making defense proceedings difficult.

Next year, the court will focus on the Matsumoto sarin attack.



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