TOKYO, (AFP) – The trial of the founder of a doomsday cult that attacked the Tokyo subway is at a crossroads with his lawyers saying his mind is in “another world” ahead of a decision that could send him to the gallows.
Asahara, who preached an apocalyptic mix of Hinduism and Buddhism, allegedly ordered the Aum cult to release Nazi-invented sarin gas on rush-hour trains on March 20, 1995, killing 12 people and injuring thousands.
He was sentenced to hang in February last year in Japan’s most closely watched trial.
After the court refused to find Asahara mentally unfit for trial last year, the defense counsel is making a fresh attempt for a retrial and must submit the guru’s own reasons for it by August 31.
But his lawyers say it is impossible to talk to him.
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Takeshi Matsui, who is one of two privately appointed lawyers for Asahara, has met him in detention about 110 times since late July last year.
“I used to think he was somewhere near me when he was saying ‘mmm, mmm’ or smirking. But recently I began to think that the more he smirks, the further into another world he is,” he told AFP.
“He may be closer to the real world when he’s silent,” he said. “I feel like saying, ‘Can you please do something, Mr Asahara?'”
The Tokyo High Court said Friday it still believed Asahara was mentally fit and rejected the call to suspend the trial for treatment.
But the court said it planned to look closely at the opinions of psychiatric experts on whether Asahara could stand trial.
If the court again finds Asahara mentally fit and the defense counsel misses the August 31 deadline to seek a retrial, the death sentence would be finalized, barring potential legal technicalities.
Daughters of Asahara have said their once mesmerizing father had turned into a “doll” in his decade of detention, wearing diapers and mumbling incomprehensibly.
Matsui, who is around Asahara’s age, also said it was “only natural to suspect some sickness if a man my age wears diapers and sits in a wheelchair on a (plastic) blue sheet as a precaution against leakage.”
“There is no national debate over whether he can be tried in such a condition,” he said.
Asahara “has the right not to be deprived of his life,” he said. “He has no means to defend himself at the moment.”
Matsui rejected suggestions the defense team was trying to prolong the trial by publicizing health concerns. But he acknowledged that many of the thousands of victims of the subway attack wanted Asahara to be executed soon.
“I want to wipe him off the face of the earth as quickly as possible,” Shizue Takahashi, whose husband was a subway worker who died in the attack, said earlier this year.
Asahara led 11,400 people in Japan at the Aum sect’s height and security experts warn that hardcore followers still obey his words and follow his rites such as bathing in scalding water and beating one another with bamboo sticks.
The defense unsuccessfully tried to suspend the trial last year by submitting a report by a psychiatrist saying Asahara may be suffering a brain disorder.
But five days before the original January 11 deadline for the lawyers to submit their reasons for appeal, the high court gave an extension until August 31.
In late July, the defense requested that the court suspend the trial and extend the deadline again with a report from a second psychiatrist, who judged Asahara had fallen into “a stupor or a state very close to it” under detention.
The psychiatrist, whose name is withheld from the media but insisted he was judging Asahara neutrally, said in the report it was “difficult to believe he is faking everything.”
The doctor said it would be possible for Asahara to improve if the court let him get help through drugs or therapy.