TOKYO – A defense lawyer for the former leader of a Japanese doomsday cult on Tuesday disputed a report by a court-appointed psychiatrist that said his client was competent to stand an appeals trial.
The report, based on a psychiatric evaluation, found that Shoko Asahara, sentenced to hang for his role in masterminding a 1995 subway gas attack on the Tokyo subway, was mentally capable of standing trial.
Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, was found guilty of responsibility for the nerve gas attack that killed 12 and sickened thousands, and was sentenced to death by a Tokyo court in February 2004.
“The report said that Asahara was capable of communicating, but we have never had a conversation with him,” said Akio Matsushita, one of Asahara’s lawyers.
“Whenever we meet him, he seems to be talking to somebody who isn’t in the room, grunting and nodding or laughing,” he added. “There’s no way that he can stand trial.”
The results of the psychiatric evaluation clear the way for the Tokyo High Court either to proceed with the appeal, where Asahara’s death sentence is widely expected to be upheld, or to dismiss it, thus finalising the verdict, media said.
The report acknowledged that Asahara had developed some prison-related symptoms, but added he “does not suffer mental problems and he is able to communicate,” Kyodo news agency reported. “He has not lost his litigation capacity.”
Matsushita said Asahara’s defense team was having him examined by another psychiatrist, who would submit a report by March 15.
The court could dismiss the appeal since defense lawyers missed a deadline for presenting a summary of their case. A decision could come next month, Japanese media said.
Asahara’s lawyers said in November that the former guru has been unable to speak or to communicate with them and should be moved to a hospital for treatment for his mental condition.
They said that Asahara was incontinent, wore diapers and used a wheelchair, and that evaluations by psychiatrists hired by the defense team showed he may be suffering from a brain disorder.
According to the Yomiuri Shimbun daily, however, a High Court judge who met with Asahara in December 2004 said he nodded and seemed to understand the content of the discussion.
Quoting a report from the Tokyo Detention House, where Asahara is confined, the Yomiuri added that on the night he was sentenced to death, Asahara screamed “Damn you!” from his cell.
The Tokyo High Court had rejected the defense’s initial request to suspend the case, but had appointed a psychiatrist to conduct an evaluation on Asahara.
The defense team has criticised the court for refusing to recognize Asahara’s illness and rushing to move on with the trial, saying the court was keen to finalize 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.
Matsushita said he was not hopeful of the court’s decision.
“I would say it’s virtually a given that they’ll decide to proceed with the appeal,” he added.