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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

What next in Asahara trial saga?


Staff writer

Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara's lawyers continue to protest the Tokyo High Court's dismissal Monday of their appeal of the cult guru's death sentence.

The court decision comes more than two years after Asahara was sentenced to death in February 2004 for ordering followers launch the March 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack and other murders.

Here is a rundown on some of the reasons the legal proceedings have apparently been stalled for so long and what may come next:

Why did the high court take so long to dismiss the appeal?

It is generally thought desirable to allow high-profile cases to go all the way to the Supreme Court, the theory being that the public has the right to know everything that happened, and that the courts should examine the case from all angles.

That is why the high court granted Asahara's lawyers an unusually long extension to file documents detailing the grounds for their appeal, extending the initial deadline from January 2005 to the end of August. Counsel is allowed to first submit an outline and add information later, but Asahara's lawyers didn't meet even the extended deadline.

Then why didn't the court dismiss the appeal?

The court could have dismissed the case but the guru's lawyers had said they were unable to file the papers because they could not communicate with their client. They also argued Asahara is mentally unfit to defend himself. If the court had accepted that, the first claim would excuse the tardy submission, while the second would halt all trial proceedings until Asahara was deemed cured.

A court-appointed psychiatrist analyzed Asahara and reported in February that he was capable of communicating and fit to stand trial. The court then had to weigh the defense's counterargument before ruling on the appeal.

Asahara's lawyers submitted diagnoses from six psychiatrists stating their client was mentally unfit. Why didn't the high court order another psychiatric evaluation?

Psychiatric reports on a defendant's mental condition at the time of the crime are extremely important and can mean the difference between a death sentence and an acquittal. But in Asahara's case, the point at issue was the effect of his protracted detention on his mental state, which was not a high priority for the courts. The high court was not obliged to order a psychiatric evaluation in the first place, and is unlikely to order another one, some experts say.

What options are left for the defense?

The defense has said it will lodge a protest with the high court to have the dismissal invalidated. If they do, a different judge will review the case to determine if the decision was appropriate.

If the second judge upholds the dismissal, then the lawyers can make a special appeal to the Supreme Court. Asahara's appellate trial will start if either the high court or Supreme Court invalidates Monday's dismissal. If not, his death sentence will be finalized.

Have other defendants had trials suspended for health reasons?

Yes. The legal process is slow and defendants are known to suffer depression, hallucinations and other psychological illnesses, according to legal experts. Their mental health usually improves quickly when removed from the prison environment, after which the trial can proceed.

In some cases, the courts stop proceedings altogether. One example is the Tokyo High Court's suspension in February 2004 of the appellate trial of former Teikyo University vice president Takeshi Abe, who had earlier been acquitted of negligence over the the death of a patient to whom he administered HIV-tainted blood products. The court suspended the trial because the then-87-year-old HIV expert had become mentally incompetent and "does not have the ability to discern right from wrong."



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