The former leader of a Japanese doomsday cult sentenced to hang for masterminding a fatal gas attack on Tokyo subways 10 years ago is mentally fit to continue his appeal, according to a report by a court-appointed psychiatrist, public broadcaster NHK said on Monday.
But the results of the evaluation could clear the way for the Tokyo High Court to proceed with the appeal, where Asahara’s death sentence is widely expected to be upheld.
A spokesman for the court could not immediately confirm the report.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was found guilty of responsibility for the 1995 gassing that killed 12 and sickened thousands, and sentenced to death by a Tokyo court in February 2004.
Asahara’s lawyers said in November that the former guru has been unable to communicate with them, let alone speak, and should be moved to a hospital for treatment for his mental condition.
They said that Asahara was incontinent, wore nappies and used a wheelchair, and that evaluations by psychiatrists hired by the defence team had shown he may be suffering from a brain disorder.
The Tokyo High Court had rejected the defence’s initial request to suspend the case, but had appointed a psychiatrist to conduct an evaluation on Asahara.
The defence team criticised the court for refusing to recognise Asahara’s illness and rushing to move on with the trial, saying the court was keen to finalise the death sentence.
About 5,500 people were injured, some permanently, when members of the cult released sarin, first developed by Nazi Germany, in Tokyo rush-hour trains on March 20, 1995.
The gassing, with its images of bodies lying across platforms and soldiers in gas masks sealing off Tokyo subway stations, stunned the Japanese public and shattered the country’s self-image as a haven of public safety.
Asahara was also found guilty of other charges including a series of crimes that killed 15 people. He pleaded not guilty but never testified and made mostly incoherent remarks in the court during the trial.
Asahara set up the cult in 1987, mixing Buddhist and Hindu meditation with apocalyptic teachings and attracting, at its peak, at least 10,000 members in Japan and overseas, among them graduates of some of the nation’s elite universities.
The pudgy, nearly blind guru predicted that the United States would attack Japan and turn it into a nuclear wasteland.
Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect), which admitted involvement in the gassing, later changed its name to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Its leaders insist that the cult is now benign, but Japanese authorities still keep its membership of about 1,600 under surveillance.