Cult leader is mum to charges he ordered subway assault in which 11 died
TOKYO — Shoko Asahara, the nearly blind guru whose fanatical cult deeply damaged Japan’s vaunted sense of peace and security, yesterday refused to respond to charges that he ordered a poison-gas attack that killed 11 people and sickened more than 5,000 others on the Tokyo subway system a year ago this week.
Asahara has been indicted for involvement in the attack and a dozen other murders, and for manufacturing poison gas, drugs and guns. He went on trial yesterday for the subway bombing, the murder of a disaffected follower and one count of drug-making.
The opening of the case against Asahara, which is being billed by some media as Japan’s “trial of the century,” attracted extraordinary attention.
More than 12,000 people lined up for a drawing in a central Tokyo park to allot 48 public seats in the courtroom. News vans and truck-mounted satellite dishes jammed streets around the courthouse, and police helicopters hovered overhead.
In his first public appearance since his arrest last May near Mount Fuji, Asahara, 41, said the cult, Aum Supreme Truth, gives himself and his followers absolute truth, freedom and happiness and that his activities — about which he refused to be specific — were meant to bring absolute freedom to more people.
He said he did not care if the court deprived him of his freedom or his life.
“No need to talk about it anymore,” he said. “That’s it.”
A defense lawyer then asked Asahara if he would talk any more about the indictments against him. “No,” Asahara replied.
Under Japanese law, defendants may admit to charges, deny them, remain silent or postpone response at the beginning of a trial. Prosecutors and the 12 court-appointed defense lawyers agreed to regard Asahara’s statement as a postponement of response to the indictments.
The guru’s long hair and beard appeared ungroomed as he entered Tokyo District Court wearing navy-blue, prison-issue pants and shirt, white socks and sandals. His request to wear sect prayer garb during the proceedings was rejected.
Asahara’s hands were bound while court officers guided him to his seat. He appeared to have lost about 50 pounds since his arrest.
Asahara was a contentious defendant from the beginning, as judges questioned him about his name, address and occupation.
“I abandoned that name,” he said when asked to confirm his birth name, Chizuo Matsumoto. He insisted that he could not remember his address and that his only occupation was “leader of Aum Shinri Kyo,” the name of the cult in Japanese.
Asahara’s speech praising the cult came more than six hours after the trial began. Most of that time was consumed with reading of the indictments — including the names, ages and injuries suffered by 3,807 victims of the subway attack.
Asahara sat during most of the reading with his eyes almost shut, sometimes stroking his hair and beard, sometimes gazing at the ceiling.
Prosecutors will begin presenting their reconstruction of Asahara’s alleged crimes today, but the trial will last for months, perhaps even years. The next court session will not be until May 23.
Victims, followers and former followers of Asahara are not expected to begin giving testimony until July. And 14 more indictments remain to be heard after the three placed before the judges yesterday are decided.
There is little doubt about the eventual outcome. Scores of cult members, including many of the group’s leaders, have been tried. Almost all confessed; all were found guilty; and many said they killed people or played roles in making and using poison gas on orders from Asahara.
The cult leader has claimed that “they are saying such things in order to save themselves.”
Though cameras were not allowed in the court, the trial received nonstop coverage. One television station used actors to recreate scenes from the proceedings.
Mugi Hanao of the Globe’s Tokyo bureau contributed to this report.