Associated Press, Apr. 24, 2003
MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press
TOKYO -Prosecutors demanded the death penalty Thursday for a doomsday cult guru charged with masterminding the 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo’s subways and a string of other crimes that deeply shocked Japan.
Closing their case in a trial that has already taken seven years, the prosecution demanded the Tokyo District Court hand down the harshest possible punishment for self-proclaimed messiah Shoko Asahara.
“The seriousness of the crime is unprecedented in this country,” the prosecutors said in their closing statement, a several-hundred-page document they took turns reading aloud. “There is no room to consider leniency.”
The 48-year-old guru, whose doomsday cult once claimed more than 10,000 followers around the world, is accused of sending his top disciples out to release the nerve gas sarin on Tokyo’s subways during the morning rush hour on March 20, 1995.
The attack targeted stations close to the offices of Japan’s central government. A dozen people were killed and some 5,000 sickened. Cult members have testified the attack was intended to overthrow the government, create chaos and hasten Armageddon.
Asahara, who has denied the allegations but alternated between incoherent ranting and sullen silence throughout most of the trial, is also charged with ordering a series of other killings, assaults and kidnappings.
Prosecutors say he was involved in 26 deaths altogether.
He sat emotionless during most of his trial Thursday.
Nine of Asahara’s top lieutenants have already been sentenced to death for their roles in the subway attack and other cult-related crimes.
In Japan, the death penalty is carried out by hanging.
Thursday’s closing arguments marked a major milestone for the lengthy trial, but court officials say the end is still months, if not years, away.
Japanese criminal trials – which are heard by a panel of judges not a jury – are generally slow because of long breaks between each court session.
Asahara’s trial has been further bogged down by the large number of crimes he was allegedly involved in and the complexity of the evidence and testimony that has been presented.
So far, 254 sessions have been heard since the trial began on April 24, 1996.
The 12-member, court-appointed defense team is set to make its final arguments on Oct. 30 and 31, but the verdict isn’t likely until late March of next year. Several more years could be consumed by an appeal, if one is filed.
The delayed justice, and Asahara’s silence, has angered many of the victims and their families.
“The very fact that my husband was killed was burned in my heart. This will never fade away,” said Shizue Takahashi, widow of a station employee killed in the subway gassing.