June 5 (Bloomberg) — Lawyers for Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that carried out the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway which killed 12 people, will today probably make a final attempt to spare him from execution.
Asahara’s legal team will probably argue an earlier appeal should have been accepted because lawyers haven’t been able to talk to the cult founder, who is refusing to speak, a reason they cited for not submitting documents on time. The deadline for the appeal to the Supreme Court is today.
The appeal will be filed by the midnight deadline, Takeshi Matsui, one of Asahara’s lawyers, said in a phone interview today.
Asahara, who is 51 and whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was sentenced to death in February 2004 after an eight-year trial for the Tokyo attack in 1995 and another gas attack in the city of Matsumoto a year earlier that left seven dead. The group is alleged to have killed 27 people in all.
He was the 12th member of Aum to be sentenced to death and the group’s activities prompted authorities in Japan to strengthen state powers, including adopting a law allowing police to wiretap phones in criminal investigations.
The Tokyo High Court on May 29 turned down an objection to its decision in March to reject an appeal against the death sentence for the Tokyo attack and other terrorist acts. The High Court on March 27 rejected the appeal because lawyers failed to meet the deadline.
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“It’s unconstitutional,” Matsui said in a phone interview on June 1. “His right to a fair trial has been violated.”
Aum Shinrikyo members released sarin gas at several points on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995. More than 3,000 people needed treatment after the incident. The deaths in Matsumoto were also a result of the release of sarin, a colorless, odorless nerve gas described as being 26 times more deadly than cyanide gas.
Prosecutors at the time called Asahara the worst criminal in the history of Japan.
At Asahara’s 2004 trial, Presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa dismissed defense claims he had lost control over his followers, saying it was clear he was involved in plotting the attacks. The group, which fielded candidates for parliament in Japan’s 1990 election, turned to terrorist acts after doing badly in the polls, Ogawa said at the trial.
At least 189 people, including Asahara, were indicted. The cult, which was established in 1987 and renamed itself Aleph in February 2000, has more than 1,650 followers in Japan and 300 in Russia, the government said in 2004.
A rejection of the appeal by the Supreme Court will open the way for the death sentence to be carried out, according to Midori Tanaka, an attorney with Tanaka Law Office in Tokyo. If it’s approved, the case would go back to the Tokyo High Court.
Japan’s Justice Minster Seiken Sugiura must sign the document approving the execution within six months of the death sentence unless there is an appeal, a request for a pardon, a request for retrial or if any co-defendants’ sentences are still pending, according to an official in the ministry who declined to be identified.
Once all the legal avenues are exhausted and the justice minister signs the order, the execution must take place within five days, the official said. Asahara is unlikely to get a pardon, another lawyer said.
“Pardons are very rare in Japan,” Kazunari Watanabe, a general practice lawyer based in Yokohama, said by telephone.
Japan was criticized last month by Amnesty International for the secrecy with which it carries out executions. Family members are usually not told of an execution till after it’s carried out, Amnesty said in its annual human rights report.
Justice Minister Sugiura announced he wouldn’t sign execution orders when he was appointed in October, according to Amnesty. He retracted the comment soon after, Amnesty said.
“This case may prompt people in Japan to seriously debate the death penalty,” Tanaka, the attorney, said.
Asahara, who is partially blind, studied acupuncture and traditional Chinese herbal medicine before he began to preach a mixture of Buddhist and Hindu theology mixed with his own apocalyptic ideas. His doctrine included the idea that murder may be justified and spiritually elevate both killer and victim.
Aum Shinrikyo renamed itself in an effort to create a new image under the leadership of Fumihiro Joyu, onetime Aum spokesman, who completed a three-year prison sentence in 1999. The group remains under surveillance and authorities periodically raid its offices.