The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a special appeal filed by the defense counsel for AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara, finalizing the death sentence handed down against him over masterminding the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system and other charges.
The top court’s No. 3 petty bench said the Tokyo High Court’s decision that Asahara, 51, is competent to stand trial is valid, thus rejecting the defense’s argument that they were unable to submit documents necessary for filing an appeal with the Tokyo High Court by its deadline because they could not establish meaningful communication with their client.
Presiding Justice Yukio Horigome said, “The fact that the defendant chose not to communicate with his attorneys was one of the major reasons that led to this kind of outcome. Not only the lawyers, but also the defendant himself are responsible for the consequences.”
The unanimous decision by the top court’s four justices supported the Tokyo High Court’s decision to reject the defense counsel’s appeal against the capital punishment decided at the Tokyo District Court in February 2004.
Asahara’s defense team issued a statement protesting against the top court’s decision.
“We strongly protest against the decision. It is quite one-sided and unjust,” the statement said.
Following the decision, Shizue Takahashi, whose husband was killed in the 1995 sarin gas subway attack when he was working as a subway station employee, said, “I have long waited for the death sentence to be finalized.”
The 59-year-old widow also said she has had enough of the court hearings and is not interested in hearing an apology from Asahara or an expression of remorse.
A team of lawyers for AUM victims also released a statement that said, “It is obvious defendant Chizuo Matsumoto bears heavier responsibilities than his followers, and he deserves to be given the harshest punishment, but…it is a great pity that we have lost the chance to hear from the defendant himself about the motives behind the crimes.”
Tomoyuki Yokota, deputy prosecutor general at the Supreme Public Prosecutors’ Office, said, “We believe we have presented enough evidence during trial to clarify what happened.”
Commenting on the lengthy court proceedings, “I know there are various opinions on the matter. We will strive to speed up trials further.”
Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also told reporters, “It was a terrible case and we must take the decision seriously. Whatever the punishment is, it has to be carried out in an orderly manner as the law states.”
The termination of court proceedings Friday came after the defense lawyers had missed the Aug. 31, 2005, deadline for submitting a statement to the Tokyo High Court to give the reason for their appeal against the district court ruling.
The lawyers said they could not establish meaningful communication with the defendant, who they claim is not competent to stand trial, and asked the high court to suspend the trial and extend the deadline for the submission of the appeal documents.
But the Supreme Court said, “It cannot be construed that the situation was unavoidable, and the lawyers’ being unable to communicate (with the defendant) is not a reason to justify a delay” in submitting the reason for appeal.
The high court rejected the appeal and turned down the objection by the defense lawyers, leading them to file the special appeal at the top court on June 5.
The Tokyo District Court found Asahara guilty on all 13 charges that resulted in the deaths of 27 people, ruling, “We cannot help saying that the motivation and purpose of the crimes are too outrageous and ridiculous, as he tried to control Japan in the name of salvation.”
His defense team, meanwhile, had argued he is innocent, laying the blame on his followers.
With the Supreme Court decision, the decade-long court proceedings over one of the most significant criminal cases in post-World War II Japan came to an end without a public trial being held at the high court.
Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Jinen Nagase said at a press conference that the top court’s rejection of the appeal was an “appropriate decision.”
Other than the Tokyo subway sarin attack, which claimed the lives of 12 people and left more than 5,500 others injured, Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was also accused of masterminding another sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994.
Seven people were killed and some 660 others were left ill by the Matsumoto attack.
The charges against him also included the murders of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, who had been helping people with complaints against the cult, as well as his wife and their 1-year-old son in November 1989.
AUM renamed itself Aleph in January 2000.
Since his arrest in May 1995 and the start of his trial in April 1996, Asahara has shown baffling behavior in the courtroom by remaining silent or just mumbling.
Given his condition, the defense team asked six prominent psychiatrists to examine his mental state, and all of them concluded that he is not mentally competent to stand trial, countering a conclusion by a court-appointed psychiatrist who determined he has kept silent of his own free will and therefore is competent.
Meanwhile, the leadership of AUM, or Aleph, has been assumed by Fumihiro Joyu, but the religious cult is now believed to be on the verge of breaking up into pro- and anti-Joyu groups.
Joyu said that the top court’s decision is appropriate, while expressing intent to establish a new religious group next year.