Attorneys appeal to save subway nerve attack mastermind
TOKYO, Japan (AP) — When she was finally allowed to visit her father, she found him in a wheelchair, wearing a diaper. A prison guard took notes throughout the 30-minute encounter, which took place in a small, barren room, through a plate of thick, transparent plastic. It was, for her, a dream come true. But as a nightmare.
Sitting on the other side of the glass was Shoko Asahara. With his arrest and trial, the teenager had gone from obscurity to being the daughter of Japan’s most hated man.
Asahara was sentenced to hang for trying to bring down Japan’s government in an elaborate scheme to hasten Armageddon with a series of violent crimes culminating in a nerve-gas attack on Tokyo’s subways that killed 12 people and sickened 5,000 more on March 20, 1995.
His arrest was seen live on television as a phalanx of riot police marched on his Aum Shinrikyo cult‘s fortress at the base of Mount Fuji. The spectacle remains etched in Japanese memories.
The second and third of his four daughters spoke to The Associated Press about their prison visits but, fearing reprisals, insisted on anonymity. During the interview, the younger daughter wore a wig to disguise herself.
Japan’s tough prisoner visitation rules were tightened even further to apply to Asahara’s six children and other relatives. The daughters waited nine years for the chance to visit him. Virtually the only other prison visitors have been his lawyers, doctors and psychologists.
Authorities had their reasons: They feared Asahara might try to pass messages to followers, and the third daughter had been rumored as his cult successor. In the interview, she scoffed at that possibility, but didn’t flat-out deny it.
But as the case against him progressed, Asahara’s defense team was facing an increasingly serious problem — they couldn’t communicate with their client.
Shortly after his eight-year trial began, Asahara started to behave incoherently. He mumbled, chuckled, released outbursts of gibberish, then fell silent. Blind and virtually deaf, the man who portrayed himself as a messiah appeared to have lost his mind.
So, as they prepared an appeal after his conviction in 2004, his lawyers decided to push for visits with Asahara’s daughters, hoping these would somehow bring him out of his shell.
The court agreed.
“Seeing our father again was the only thing that kept us going,” the second daughter said in the interview. She had been warned he was in bad shape, but what she saw came as a shock. “I wanted to tell him and ask him so many things,” she said. “But he just sat there grinning. It was unbearable.”
Though 51, he looked old and frail. He didn’t respond to anything she said, just mumbled and chuckled. During a later visit, he masturbated in front of her. She went into a deep depression, and was briefly hospitalized.
Never in their dozens of visits have they had a coherent conversation, the daughters say.
But while Asahara failed to bring down Japan’s government, many believe he is now succeeding in making a mockery of — or becoming a martyr at the hands of — its justice system.
In June, Asahara’s lawyers petitioned Japan’s Supreme Court in what could be their last chance to save him. A decision is expected at any time. If the sentence stands, and Japan follows normal practice, the self-proclaimed guru will be hanged without prior announcement, and the daughters notified only after he is dead.
Odyssey in the courtroom
Asahara’s post-conviction saga has been no less bizarre than his courtroom behavior.
His legal team missed the deadline to file an appeal because, they claim, they couldn’t communicate with him in any meaningful way.
Evaluations conducted before the appeal deadline by court-appointed psychiatrist Akira Nishiyama found Asahara to be disturbed but competent, and suggested he might be faking insanity to avoid punishment.
But Takeshi Matsui, who heads the defense team, said Asahara suffers from “prison psychosis,” which is manifested in delusions, hallucinations, incoherent speech and disorganized behavior. Matsui’s motion demands Asahara be treated and that they be allowed to appeal once he is again stable enough to assist his defense.
“I have heard these kind of problems can be treated in a matter of months,” Matsui said.
Hisataka Kogi, a psychiatrist hired by Matsui’s team, said his examination showed of Asahara to be in need of treatment but added “he is treatable.”
“The court is rushing to condemn him,” Kogi said. “To do so, the authorities don’t want to stamp him as insane because that makes it impossible to execute him. … I think the court deliberately avoided a mental evaluation that would lead to that possibility.”
The law, at least, is clear.
Prisoners cannot be executed if they have lost the ability to understand the punishment due to mental illness, and a stay must be granted until he or she recovers, according to Justice Ministry official Hiroyuki Tsuji.
The ministry has no record of any such case in the past, Tsuji said.
If Matsui’s petition fails, Asahara will join 84 people on death row. He would likely be hanged at the Tokyo Detention Center where he is now incarcerated, but officials said that decision will not be made until after the ruling is announced.
Chizuo Matsumoto — he assumed the religious name Shoko Asahara when he created Aum — was convicted and in April 2004 sentenced to die.
In their verdict, the three judges held that “These crimes are the most heinous and grave that we have ever seen,” and that “there is no other punishment for him than death.”
By age 30, Asahara’s life had etched an amazing trajectory.
After two run-ins with the law in his 20s that led to convictions for misdemeanor fraud and assault, he gave up a massage and yoga business to found a cult preaching an eclectic mishmash of Buddhist, Hindu and New Age teachings.
It was a huge success — within a decade of its creation in 1984, it had swelled to 10,000 members in Japan and claimed another 30,000 in Russia. It was generating tens of millions of dollars (euros) in income from membership donations — thousands of followers gave up all their possessions to live on Aum communes — and from a booming computer software business.
But as it grew into Aum Shinrikyo, aka Aum Supreme Truth, it became increasingly focused on hastening the world’s end.
Critics and “deserters” were treated harshly — nearly a dozen were murdered, authorities later discovered, some incinerated at the Aum commune.
The cult actively recruited members with scientific and medical backgrounds, and used their expertise to set up labs to manufacture various chemical and biological weapons — from anthrax to the deadly nerve gas sarin, developed by the Nazis in World War II — and stockpiled guns and hallucinogenic drugs.
Court documents say the cult was also seeking uranium to use in a “dirty bomb” nuclear device.
Asahara told his followers Armageddon was near and only his followers would survive. According to his former aides, Asahara grew afraid police were on to Aum after newspapers linked it to a 1994 nerve gas attack in the central Japan city of Matsumoto that killed seven people.
The police swooped two months after the subway attack, confiscated truckloads of weapons and drugs, rounded up dozens of cult leaders and pulled Asahara out of a concealed crawlspace.
He was charged with masterminding the gassing and involvement in 12 other crimes that killed 27 people. Eleven of his top lieutenants have been sentenced to hang, although none has yet been executed pending appeals. Three more remain at large.
But Asahara’s legacy lives on.
The cult has renamed itself Aleph, and authorities say about 1,650 people in Japan and 300 in Russia continue to believe in Asahara’s teachings. Aleph members reached at the cult’s Tokyo headquarters refused to talk to the AP.
Life hasn’t gone back to normal for Asahara’s daughters.
Eleven years after the subway gassing, public anger remains so intense that Asahara’s daughters still receive death threats. They rarely appear in public. Seen as a potential cult leader, the third daughter claims she is often tailed by plainclothes police. Court orders have been required to force towns to register them as residents.
His second and third daughters, now in their 20s, say they have recently broken their silence to plead for mercy for their father, saying they, like the rest of Japan, badly want to hear him explain himself. They are suing the Tokyo High Court and the state-appointed psychologist, claiming their father was denied a fair trial.
“If he committed these crimes, he must be punished,” the younger one said. “But he has no more understanding of what is happening around him than a cat or a dog. To execute him now isn’t justice.”
Life hasn’t gone on for Aum’s victims, either.
After helping pull victims from a train at Kasumigaseki station, in the heart of Tokyo’s government district, subway worker Kazumasa Takahashi, 50, got out a broom and a dustpan and started cleaning up a puddle of clear liquid — later identified as sarin — that had spilled from a plastic bag by the door of one of the cars.
Minutes later, he was dead. Far more might easily have died had the gas fumes spread more rapidly
Takahashi’s widow, Shizue, sat through more than half of the 260 sessions of Asahara’s murder trial at the Tokyo District Court. She too was desperate to hear Asahara explain his actions, accept responsibility and apologize.
She has given up on that.
“In the beginning, I hoped that he would say something, but obviously, he was not facing the trial seriously, not reflecting on the crimes or thinking about the victims,” she said. “This man is hopeless, and at this point I don’t have to hear anything from him.”