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Defense lawyers to question Aum founder Asahara • Sunday December 22, 2002

Kyodo (Japan), Dec. 20, 2002

TOKYO Defense lawyers for Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara said Thursday that they intend to question him in court next year.

The lawyers had earlier said they were not sure if they could question Asahara, who is accused of masterminding the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin gas attack that killed 12 people and made more than 5,000 others ill, as he previously appeared oblivious in court and was not responding to the lawyers.

Osamu Watanabe, chief of the defense council, said at a news conference, “We are still not sure how he will respond but we will make our utmost efforts in questioning him in court.”

The lawyers for Asahara, 47, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, insisted on his innocence as they began presenting their arguments in May in the trial of the cult leader.

The defense team denied that Asahara conspired with his disciples in the sarin attack, and said he was a sincere leader who tried to spread religious convictions.

The defense team members said they believe they have been successful in demonstrating the innocence of Asahara in court since May, but they will need another six months or so for preparation for the planned final arguments after the prosecutors make their closing arguments as early as next summer.

The trial of Asahara began at the Tokyo District Court in April 1996, and in January prosecutors finished presenting the main points in their case. Asahara has been indicted in 13 criminal cases, including seven murder cases.

He was originally indicted in 17 cases, but prosecutors withdrew in October 2000 four cases involving the illegal manufacture of thiopental, a barbiturate administered intravenously.

The defense team attributed the series of crimes committed by cult members to some former top Aum officials who they said misunderstood Aum teachings and were not under Asahara’s control. The team said it is poised to present evidence about followers’ mental states and their behavior as a group.

Although Asahara may have moral responsibility as the group’s leader, it does not follow that he is also legally liable, the team said earlier.

The cult now calls itself Aleph.

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