Aum Supreme Truth leader Chizuo Matsumoto remained silent during a hearing Thursday at the Tokyo District Court as defense lawyers attempted to question him for the first time since his trial over the sarin gas attacks began in January 1998.
The hearing adjourned after less than an hour. If Matsumoto still refuses to speak at two upcoming hearings, the prosecution is likely to close their arguments and make demands for Matsumoto’s punishment.
Matsumoto, also known as Shoko Asahara, has been indicted on 13 criminal charges including the attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people in March 1995 and the 1994 nerve gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that killed seven people.
Questioning at Matsumoto’s 251st hearing began Thursday afternoon, but he did not reply to any of the questions asked by his defense team.
A number of hearings remain in which the defense team is expected to try to question Matsumoto, but if he does not change his attitude, the hearings will be called off and closing arguments will be presented. In that case, prosecutors will demand a penalty for the accused next month.
In the Tokyo District Court’s largest courtroom, No. 104, a prison official led Matsumoto in and sat him down in front of presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa at 1:15 p.m.
A defense lawyer told him: “Today is the day for you to speak,” but Matsumoto remained silent.
When the lawyer strongly urged him to say something, Matsumoto remained seated and silent, but suddenly began swinging his arms.
During the past seven years, the Matsumoto case has been beset by problems involving both the defense and prosecution, sources said Thursday.
Even the trial’s first hearing, which was scheduled for October 1995, was put off until April 1996 because Matsumoto dismissed his lawyer before the planned opening. He then refused to enter a plea at the hearing.
Twelve court-appointed defense lawyers boycotted the 30th hearing in March 1997, contending that three hearings a month should be the maximum in Matsumoto’s trial. The hearings were usually held four times a month.
Thus carrying out a speedy trial was almost impossible from the start, the sources said.
Exactly a year after his first hearing, in an April 1997 hearing, Matsumoto agreed to enter a plea, but he pleaded not guilty to 16 of 17 charges related to the lethal sarin nerve gas attack cases, saying he had told his followers to cancel the use of sarin, and that he was compelled to tell them to do so.
In Matsumoto’s second arraignment, in January 1998, his statements were riddled with obscure phrases and English jargon.
That was the last time Matsumoto made any remarks during his hearings. Even now he does not hold serious talks with his lawyers and his real intentions are cloaked in mystery, the sources said.
When prosecutors accused the defense team during a hearing of taking too much time for cross-examination, defense lawyers counterattacked by accusing the prosecution of not presenting sufficient evidence. The two sides engaged in fierce debate.
To speed up the trial, prosecutors took the unusual move in October 2000 of seeking to drop four charges of illicit drug manufacture, leaving Matsumoto facing trial on 13 charges.
The judge, prosecutors and defense lawyers are expected to question Matsumoto on three occasions, the first taking place Thursday.
The defense lawyers have said they need at least six months to prepare a closing argument, but the court is expected to hand down a ruling by March next year.
Rulings for other high-ranking Aum members now on trial are expected to be handed down by the end of this year.
Closing statements in the trial of Tomomasa Nakagawa, 40, who was Matsumoto’s doctor in the cult, are to be concluded on May 12. The court is expected to hand down a ruling by autumn.