AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara‘s defense lawyers argued Thursday that Asahara is not guilty of ordering two sarin gas attacks and other crimes killing 27 people, and placed the blame on his followers.
Asahara’s state-appointed lawyers, who began their two-day closing arguments at the Tokyo District Court, sought to refute the 13 criminal charges filed against Asahara, including those related to the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995.
Osamu Watanabe, who heads the defense team, criticized the prosecution’s argument from the outset, saying the ultimate reason the group committed the crimes must be clarified.
”We will not be able to shed light on the AUM-related cases if we do not clarify why a religious group committed the crime,” he said at the 255th hearing of the seven-and-a-half-year trial.
On April 24, prosecutors demanded the death penalty for Asahara, calling his actions the most heinous in Japanese criminal history and referring to him as the mastermind behind all the crimes.
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The defense team argued that some senior members misinterpreted AUM teachings and got out of control, and that Asahara could no longer stop them.
The followers did whatever it took to win ”salvation” and acts committed by the senior members were taken to be the will of the 48-year-old guru, the defense lawyers said.
The defense team also insisted that his arrest on May 16, 1995, was illegal, as it was groundless, so that any evidence collected at that time should be excluded during the trial.
They also argued that Asahara had not ordered the 1989 killing of lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto — who was helping people with complaints against AUM — together with his wife and his infant son, as well as the sarin gas incident in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, in 1994.
With Wednesday’s ruling on former doctor Tomomasa Nakagawa, a key senior AUM member responsible for sarin gas production, the Tokyo court has now sentenced 10 cult members to death. Nine of them are appealing, and Nakagawa is expected to follow suit.
The trial is expected to conclude with the 256th hearing Friday, and the court has set Feb. 27 next year as the day it will hand down its ruling.
During his first hearing on April 24, 1996, Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, did not enter plea. But a year later, he pleaded not guilty to all charges except for one attempted murder case involving a VX gas attack.
For most of the trial, in which the prosecutors have presented more than 160 witnesses, Asahara has remained silent. In March and April this year, he refused to respond during three question sessions.
Reflecting great public interest in the case, 377 people lined up outside the court for a lottery for the 45 tickets to the public gallery to Thursday’s hearing.
Asahara was indicted on murder and other charges in 13 criminal cases, including the 1995 gassing incident in the Tokyo subway system during the morning rush hour that killed 12 people and injured more than 5,000.
The charges also include the earlier sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, on June 27, 1994, in which AUM members sprayed sarin gas in a residential area, killing seven people and seriously injuring four others.
Also among the charges, Asahara is accused of ordering the killing of other AUM cultists and the lawyer. Asahara was first indicted on charges in 17 criminal cases in which 27 people died. In December 1997, the prosecutors reduced the number of people cited in the indictment as suffering from sarin gas exposure from about 4,000 to 18 to expedite the trial.
In October 2000, they also dropped charges against him in four cases related to AUM’s alleged secret drug production.
Even so, the hearings took this long mainly due to the great number of witnesses presented by the prosecutors, as the defense lawyers did not agree to use as evidence most of the confessions made by senior cult members.
AUM renamed itself Aleph in January 2000.