Japan: Guru is charged in 1995 subway gas attack that killed 11 and sickened more than 5,500. He could face hanging if convicted.
Shoko Asahara, the apocalyptic guru accused of launching a campaign of mass terrorism on one of the world’s largest cities, appeared in court today to answer charges of masterminding the deadly nerve gas attack on Tokyo subway riders last year.
Asahara, who lured hordes of young followers into his Aum Supreme Truth cult with claims of supernatural powers and a doomsday vision of salvation, is accused of killing 11 people and injuring more than 5,500 others in the attack on March 20, 1995. If convicted, he could face death by hanging.
In his first public appearance since his arrest in May, the guru maintained a poker face. He told the court his occupation is “sponsoring” Supreme Truth, the Japanese media reported.
Asahara’s long hair was tied back in a ponytail, and he wore a dark blue jogging suit. The court had rejected his request to wear white spiritual robes, the Japanese media said.
The brutal crimes that the cult is accused of committing–from murder and kidnapping to the production of rifles and the Nazi-era nerve gas, sarin–astonished Japan and led to national soul-searching about how this well-ordered society could produce such mayhem.
Asahara, 41, is expected to enter his plea before a panel of four judges in the Tokyo District Court, which has been shut down for all other cases. He was transported to court today in a bulletproof white police bus, curtains tightly drawn, accompanied by about 20 escort vehicles and an overhead helicopter.
More than 1,000 police were posted in the area, and 12,000 people lined up in a nearby park to vie for courtroom seats via lottery. Among the crowd were some of Asahara’s followers, who said they hope to receive spiritual energy from him.
Akira Matsumoto, 19, said he woke up at 5:30 a.m. to catch a train from Kanagawa, 90 minutes away, to line up for the trial. A university law student, he was interested in the legal aspects of the case. But he also said he sympathizes with cult followers who dropped out of elite universities to follow Asahara.
“I don’t understand Asahara at all,” he said. “But I can sympathize with the followers and feel the distortions of Japan’s gakureki society,” he said, referring to the value system in which career success is heavily based on academic pedigree.
The trial is certain to become one of the most celebrated in Japan’s history, and the hearing produced a frenzy of media coverage. Most of Japan’s major television networks scheduled daylong saturation coverage. Fuji Television alone is deploying 350 reporters and 35 cameras to broadcast live reports from 19 locations; it is also using a new computer graphic system to transmit every expression on Asahara’s face.
The case against the guru is largely built on the confessions of former followers. They include Ikuo Hayashi, a doctor who says Asahara ordered him to release sarin in Tokyo’s subways, and Yoshihiro Inoue, who was feared as the cult’s intelligence chief.
These former followers say Asahara ordered the attack as a way to divert police attention from an impending raid on the cult’s headquarters near Mt. Fuji in connection with the disappearance of a notary public, Kiyoshi Kariya. The notary public, who had been trying to protect his sister from the cult, was kidnapped and later found dead, reportedly of side effects caused by injection of a truth serum.
The subway attack last year during the peak of the morning rush-hour commute threw Tokyo into chaos. Victims staggered out of stations vomiting and complaining of blindness.
Participants in the attack reportedly have told police that they carried packets of frozen sarin onto the trains, poked holes in the packets with the sharpened tips of umbrellas, then left them to thaw and poison the passengers.
The Tokyo attack followed an earlier sarin assault in the town of Matsumoto, about 110 miles northwest of Tokyo. The Matsumoto attack killed seven people and sickened about 600 more, including three judges handling a case involving the Supreme Truth cult. The cult is also suspected in a wave of other violent acts, including the 1989 killing of a Yokohama lawyer and his family, the 1995 explosion of a letter bomb at Tokyo City Hall and the shooting of the National Police Agency chief.
Despite the cult’s long and suspicious trail, police aggressively moved in only after the sarin subway attack in Tokyo. Two days later, police launched a massive raid on the cult’s headquarters near Mt. Fuji. Armed with gas masks and poison-detecting canaries, they discovered an enormous cache of chemicals and equipment to manufacture rifles and narcotics.
How a religious group managed to construct massive drug factories, import huge amounts of restricted chemicals, buy a Russian helicopter and smuggle in foreign arms–all without police interference–is a question that remains unanswered.
Only about 500 members are said to remain in the cult, which once claimed 10,000 members in Japan. Members say they were attracted to Asahara’s blend of Hindu and yogic teachings, his powerful leadership and his promise to develop their supernatural abilities, such as levitation. Many signed over their life savings and property, but the cult has been declared bankrupt in the past year with claims of $93 million from victims and former followers.
Officials are attempting to disband the group forcibly by using a Cold War law against subversive activities, the first time the law has been used against an organization. In addition, the Japanese parliament last year passed a law to better monitor religious activities.
Still, the frenzy of national soul-searching provoked by the attack has died down, even though the conditions that produced Supreme Truth remain, analysts here say.
Said Shigeo Tatsuki, a sociology professor at Kwansei Gakuin University near Kobe. “It’s really scary that people aren’t talking about this more: why it happened and what we can do about it.”
BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC) The Defendant and the Case
The Guru: Shoko Asahara was born as Chizuo Matsumoto on March 2, 1955. He was one of seven children of a poverty-stricken maker of tatami straw mats. Blind, he started an acupuncture clinic and health-tonic store, began teaching yoga and claims to have achieved “ultimate salvation” in the Himalayas in 1986. In 1987, he renamed a religious group he founded to Aum Supreme Truth. His group practices a blend of Hindu and yogic practices but became increasingly apocalyptic in recent years, predicting a U.S. nuclear attack on Japan between 1996 and 1998.
The Charges: Asahara is charged with the murder of 11 people and injuring about 3,800 others by releasing sarin nerve gas on Tokyo subways on March 20, 1995. He is also accused of ordering the murder of a disenchanted follower and producing illegal narcotics. In addition, Asahara is implicated in 14 other incidents not included in today’s hearing.
The Case: In Japan’s biggest criminal investigation ever, police have arrested a total 428 followers, performed 630 raids and seized a total 148,000 items from cult properties. Among 79 cases settled so far, one defendant has been found innocent. In addition, 575 civil cases seeking a total $93 million in compensation have been filed against the cult. Source: Japanese news reports