The marathon trial of Chizuo Matsumoto, alias Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, reached a milestone on Friday when the Tokyo District Court sentenced him to death. But, to everyone’s dismay, the trial left a crucial question largely unanswered: Why did the guru and a handful of his top disciples commit a series of such heinous crimes?
Asahara, a self-styled prophet of Armageddon, was found guilty on 13 criminal counts that caused 27 deaths, including the 1995 sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway that killed 12 and injured thousands; the 1994 sarin poisoning in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that left seven people dead and sickened hundreds; and the 1989 slayings of anti-Aum lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto and his family. According to the ruling, Asahara “masterminded” not only the manufacture and use of the deadly gas but also indiscriminate terrorist attacks in a bid to militarize the cult. In doing so, the statement said he “exhibited a fanatic desire to promote himself and control others.”
The trial took seven years and 10 months. This seems simply too long, even considering the peculiar problems that stood in the way, such as the defendant’s consistent refusal to answer questions. Now that the sentence has been delivered, a review of the whole process is in order. Also needed is a further analysis of the dilemmas in modern society that seemed to have sent so many young people knocking at Aum’s door.
The focal question in the trial was: Did Asahara actually give orders to kill? The defense counsel said no, putting all the blame on senior disciples who “ran amok” in their own ways.
The question took an oddly semantic twist as well: What did “poa” — the religious password used by Asahara — really mean? The defense counsel said it meant raising a person to a higher level of spirituality. The ruling said, however, it was a secret code for “kill” that was used in the slayings of the Sakamoto family. The conclusion was that Asahara plotted all 13 crimes with his aides.
The frustrating thing is that it took nearly eight years to reach that conclusion. In all, the court held 257 sessions and called 522 witnesses. Questioning took 1,258 hours. The trial would have lasted much longer had it not been for extraordinary steps taken by the prosecution, such as dropping nearly 4,000 surviving victims of the subway attack from their case.
A trial is, by definition, a time-consuming process. It takes time for the defense team to prepare its case, particularly in an elaborate trial such as this one. A defendant has the right to keep silent, and this causes delays in the proceedings. It would be wrong to blame the defendant for exercising this right.
Still, the delay in the Asahara trial was not inevitable. The defense counsel — a scratch team of state-appointed lawyers — could have worked more efficiently; they were criticized for using delaying tactics. The court showed itself to be largely powerless in facilitating the trial. Some of these mistakes must be avoided if the trials that lie ahead — at the appellate levels — are to proceed with reasonable speed.
The lesson is obvious: A speedy and substantive trial is essential not only to uncover the truth but also to help heal victims’ traumas and rehabilitate defendants. Indeed, this is the basic tenet of the trial facilitation law that took effect last year, which sets a two-year limit on all first trials.
The ruling attributes the murders to Asahara’s “illusory ambition to expand the cult through militarization and to eventually rule Japan as its savior and king.” It is hard to understand how such a deranged visionary attracted thousands of promising young men and women, and why some blindly obeyed his horrendous orders, apparently without the slightest qualms.
During the trial, Asahara, who is said to be nearly blind, presented a pathetic picture of a disheveled and worn-out middle-aged man with no religious fervor, yet he apparently still commands awe and respect among an estimated 1,600 Aum followers in Japan. The group, which renamed itself Aleph in January 2000 and remains under surveillance by an agency of the Justice Ministry, no longer enjoys formal status as a religious entity, but its appeal to youths is likely to remain strong despite the death sentence against its founder.
Aum Shinrikyo is seen widely as a pathological phenomenon of a modern society in which young people, bereft of spiritual moorings, seek a new haven in radical cults. The death penalty against Asahara is no assurance that Aum will become extinct. It could even get a new lease on life if he is revered as a “martyr.” That is why nonjudiciary means also must be sought to combat the Aum syndrome.