7 associates also may be indicted
TOKYO — The Sublime Truth cult leader, Shoko Asahara, was formally charged today with murder and attempted murder for allegedly masterminding the nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subways that killed 12 people and sickened 5,500.
After three weeks of police detention and questioning, prosecutors asked the Tokyo District Court to try the bearded, partially blind guru in the March 20 subway attack, media reports said.
Japanese authorities rarely bring charges without an extremely strong case against a suspect. The conviction rate in cases that come to trial is 99 percent.
With Japan’s self-image of safety and order shaken by the attack, the indictment marked a psychological milestone for the country.
Asahara has denied involvement in the attack, but his lieutenants in the cult reportedly have said he was the mastermind, describing how he ordered sarin produced and expressed satisfaction when the attack occurred.
The guru was arrested May 16 at the cult’s mountain stronghold following a nationwide hunt. Japanese law allows suspects to be held for questioning for 23 days before authorities decide to file charges; reports have said the charges would be filed today, narrowly meeting the deadline.
Asahara was interrogated in jail without a lawyer present, the typical practice in Japan but one that has been criticized by rights groups who say police use intimidation to coerce confessions.
Among the other cult followers under arrest for the subway attack, 11 will be charged with murder and 14 with conspiracy to commit murder, Kyodo News Service said.
Asahara has said he was not aware of everything his followers were doing, but cult members say he oversaw major activities.
In another development yesterday, Seiichi Endo, a doctor and a key member of the cult’s chemical team, said that Asahara ordered him to make sarin two days before the attack, according to several newspaper reports.
One of the five followers who police say released nerve gas on the subways, cult doctor Ikuo Hayashi, said he would not have done it “if it hadn’t been our supreme master’s order.”
The NHK public television network said Hayashi told interrogators the late Hideo Murai, the cult’s “science and technology minister,” told him his role in the gassing had been an assignment from Asahara.
Murai was stabbed to death in what authorities believe was a hit carried out by a gang member.
In addition to the subway case, Asahara may eventually face other charges, such as the June 1994 nerve gas attack in the central city of Matsumoto that killed seven people.