Editorial: The trial of Aum’s Matsumoto

The Tokyo High Court quite abruptly decided to end trial proceedings regarding Chizuo Matsumoto, the founder of the doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo.

The court’s reason is that Matsumoto’s lawyers missed the deadline for filing a document to appeal a death sentence handed down by the Tokyo District Court. If the high court rejects the defense team’s objection and if the Supreme Court refuses the appeal, the death sentence will be finalized.

Given that the defendant was the leader of an extremely dangerous cult that shocked and terrified society, it seems hasty to terminate all court proceedings simply because the defense lawyers missed the deadline.

Matsumoto’s lawyers have repeatedly claimed that since their client has remained effectively incommunicable, their professionalism dictates that they should refuse to write and submit any imperfect document. But the high court rejected the defense lawyers’ claim and said they were employing a malicious stalling tactic. They had already blown two earlier chances to file the document, in January and August last year.

Despite the serious work of both the court and the defense team, the situation makes us think of a teacher expecting a homework assignment by a certain day and a student refusing to comply, saying it is “irrelevant.” The irate teacher, insisting the student must do as he is told, decides to give him a failing mark. And by the time the student backs down and promises to hand in his work, it is too late. The student has underestimated the teacher’s resolve.

But this fighting is not just about procedures in filing a document. The main issue is whether the defendant, already sentenced to death as the ringleader of a cult that released nerve gas in subways and a residential neighborhood, is mentally competent to stand trial. During the district court hearings, Matsumoto began to behave as if he were “not there.” He sometimes slept through hearings, or kept uttering words that might have been in English but were nonetheless incomprehensible. At one time, he claimed he was a former high school baseball pitcher who led his team to a national championship at Koshien Stadium.

“He has developed mental problems from his long years in detention,” his lawyers assert. They claim that their client has become delusional and urgently needs medical treatment before being tried.

The Tokyo High Court’s opinion is that Matsumoto is faking his mental illness. The court cited his behavior on the day he was sentenced to death in the district court. After the sentencing, when he was back in detention, Matsumoto screamed, “Damn, why?” If Matsumoto is seriously mentally ill, he should be put into therapy. But if he is faking it, we could never forgive such an act.

Instead of ending this trial in the manner decided by the high court, couldn’t the prosecutors and the defense lawyers argue in court on whether Matsumoto is sane or not?

Even if the hearings resume, this trial should not drag on for years. It has already been 16 years since a lawyer representing Aum victims was murdered together with his wife and infant son, and 11 years since the Tokyo subway sarin attacks. Some bereaved families say they want an early finalization of the sentence against Matsumoto.

The defense team has denounced the Tokyo High Court’s decision as an “outrage,” and finally submitted a document to explain the reasons for appealing the death sentence. The team is also preparing to file an objection to the Tokyo High Court.

We hope judges who examine the objection will do so squarely and with an open mind. If the contents of the appeals documents reflect the authors’ professional conscience as jurists, perhaps there will be room for adjusting the course toward taking the case back to the courts.

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The Asahi Shimbun, Japan
Mar. 30, 2006 Editorial

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday March 30, 2006.
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