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Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Asahara death sentence appeal foiled

Insanity motion fails; top court still an option


Staff writer

The Tokyo High Court on Monday rejected an appeal from Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara, increasing the likelihood the guru's death sentence for masterminding the deadly 1995 gassing of the Tokyo subway system and other murders will stand without further sessions.

News photo
Shoko Asahara

After effectively giving Asahara's counsel extra time to submit appeal documents after they "missed" last August's deadline because of what they claimed was an inability to communicate with the babbling guru, the court decided Monday the foot-dragging had to come to an end and said there was no excuse for the delay. It also reiterated its position that Asahara is mentally competent to stand trial, based on the diagnosis of a court-appointed psychiatrist.

The Tokyo District Court sentenced Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, to death in February 2004. His lawyers have been saying he is too mentally ill to stand his appeals trial and take responsibility for his crimes.

Recently, however, his defense team reversed is position and said last week they would soon file for an appeal. They were poised to submit the documents Tuesday.

Legal experts say Asahara's lawyers have few viable options left.

After Monday's decision, the defense team issued a statement in which they vowed to lodge a complaint with the high court.

"The court's rejection of our appeal is void," lawyer Akio Matsushita said in the statement, adding that they would not let the court's recklessness stand. "We will use whatever means we have to denounce the court's rashness."

The lawyers also accused the court of attempting to keep the case in the dark.

While they have not detailed what steps they may take, one option may be to appeal to the Supreme Court. However, such an appeal usually only checks to see whether appropriate procedures were taken, and rarely ends in a reversal.

In a separate statement, Haruo Kasama, deputy chief prosecutor at the Tokyo High Public Prosecutor's Office, lauded the court's decision as being extremely appropriate.

"Counsel has no valid reason for failing to file their grounds for appeal by the designated date," he said.

Asahara's trial has been dragging on since 1996. Lawyers began making motions to file an appeal with the high court following the district court ruling, but the proceedings were halted last August when they missed the deadline for submitting the guru's reasons for appealing.

Since his arrest 11 years ago, Asahara's behavior has become increasingly erratic. Toward the end of his district court trial, he was shouting obscenities, dropping his pants and flailing his arms, his lawyers noted.

Asahara, who is virtually blind, shows no sign that he recognizes his three daughters, according to lawyers and psychiatrists who have been asked to evaluate his mental state. He grunts, babbles incoherently and touches himself during meetings with lawyers and psychiatrists, they said.

Prosecutors have accused Asahara's defense of unnecessarily prolonging the court procedures.

Asahara was convicted for his role in 13 criminal cases, including the sarin attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995 that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,500 others.

While survivors of the cult's attacks and the families of victims and former followers have demanded a quick conclusion to the trials, some have said otherwise.

"To end the trial now would mean all the questions about why Aum committed those crimes and why people had to die would remain unanswered," said Eiko Nagaoka, whose husband, Hiroyuki, was attacked by cultists in January 1995 with a liquid form of VX gas.

"I say treat him, so we can find out what exactly happened, so we can prevent the same thing from happening again."



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