After seven-year trial, doomsday guru’s lawyer says he did his best

Associated Press, Apr. 21, 2003
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TOKYO (AP) — His client slept through sessions of the trial. He mumbled, ranted in an odd mixture of Japanese and broken English, and refused to address the charges against him even with his own team of lawyers.

But attorney Osamu Watanabe, who has for the past seven years represented the doomsday cult guru charged with masterminding the 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subways, said Monday he feels satisfied he made the best case he could — and is hoping for an acquittal.

“Despite all the restrictions and pressure from the court, we did everything we thought was necessary and possible,” Watanabe said in an interview with The Associated Press. “And I’m proud that we were able to protect the defendant’s rights.”

The prosecution is scheduled to give its closing arguments — and formally request the death penalty for cult guru Shoko Asahara — at Tokyo District Court on Thursday.

The session will mark a major milestone in what has been an exceptionally long and complicated trial, even by Japan’s slow court standards.

Along with the March 20, 1995, nerve gas attack, which left 12 dead and sickened thousands, Asahara is also charged with ordering a series of other killings, assaults and kidnappings.

Altogether, prosecutors say he was involved in 26 deaths.

Nine of Asahara’s top lieutenants have already been sentenced to death for their roles in the subway attack and other cult-related crimes. If convicted, Asahara, who once claimed more than 10,000 followers worldwide, could also face death by hanging.

Watanabe’s job has by any measure been a difficult one.

Asahara fired his first private counsel, whose eccentric personality and lack of experience raised doubts in the legal community, on the eve of what was to have been the start of his trial in October 1995.

The court then appointed a 12-member legal team for Asahara, headed by Watanabe, a well-known human rights advocate and outspoken opponent of the death penalty.

The subway attack and subsequent revelations of other brutal acts by members of Asahara’s Aum Shinrikyo cult made him and his neo-Buddhist cult the focus of intense hatred and fear throughout Japan.

To make matters worse, Watanabe said, Asahara never offered his attorneys much help. He refused to discuss the case — or even speak — with them. When not maintaining a sullen silence, he seemed to revel in bizarre behavior in court, at times launching into incoherent tirades.

He kept silent during the three most recent sessions, however, when the court offered him the chance to make a statement.

“I really wanted him to say something because it was his last chance to say what was on his mind as a religious leader,” Watanabe said. “I regret we couldn’t establish communication with him.”

The defense’s case focused mainly on questioning whether Asahara had been directly linked to the gassing or other crimes by the mountain of depositions and confessions by members of Asahara’s cult that was presented by the prosecution.

Watanabe also argued that the judge’s handling of the case — there are no jury trials in Japan — had been swayed by public opinion. He said the prosecutors were allowed more leeway than they normally would be able to expect.

Still, he said he believes he made a strong case.

“As a defense lawyer, I can only say I believe he will be acquitted,” Watanabe said.

One senior prosecutor, on the other hand, blamed the defense team for delaying justice by asking trivial questions and spending an inordinate amount of time on procedural matters.

“I must admit I believe the trial has been going on for too long,” said Haruo Kasama, a deputy chief of the Tokyo District Prosecutor’s Office.

Relatives of those who died say they are also angry at the length of the trial, and by Asahara’s failure to offer some sort of apology over the 13 charges against him.

“I attended every single session eagerly, thinking Asahara might say something,” said Shizue Takahashi, whose husband was a subway employee. “I think Asahara deserves 13 counts of death.”

Court officials note Thursday’s session will by no means be the end.

The defense is set to make its final arguments on Oct. 30 and 31, and the verdict isn’t likely until late March of next year. Several more years could be consumed by an appeal, if one is filed.

Watanabe said he will not take on that task.

“I’ve done enough already, and I’ll be 70 in September,” he said.

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