The long trial of Aum Shinrikyo founder Shoko Asahara ended Sept. 15 when the Supreme Court rejected a special appeal by lawyers for Asahara.
The top court’s decision affirmed the February 2004 ruling of the Tokyo District Court, which found the cult leader guilty of 13 criminal counts, the most serious being the sarin gas poisoning on March 20, 1995, of a Tokyo subway that killed 12 people and seriously injured 14 others. Now the death sentence handed down to the mastermind behind that deadly nerve-gas attack has been finalized.
But the court proceedings were irregular: In neither of the two appellate trial stages — one before the Tokyo High Court and the other before the Supreme Court — did the defendant attend the hearings held. This irregularity has been extremely frustrating for the public, which should have been able to hear the full story behind Asahara’s crimes. It has deprived the public of the chance to understand the philosophy and thinking that drove Asahara to orchestrate indiscriminate killings as well as the circumstances, including the early years of his life, that led him to become a religious “guru” and eventually a mass murderer.
A total of 27 people died and 4,000 to 5,000 others were injured as a result of Asahara’s 13 crimes. Besides the Tokyo sarin-gas attack, he is responsible for killing seven people and injuring four others in a sarin-gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, on June 27, 1994, and for killing a Yokohama lawyer and his wife and son on Nov. 4, 1989.
The way Asahara’s trial ended may deepen people’s distrust of the nation’s judiciary system. It is hoped that the experience of having to put up with such a lengthy trial, which lasted 10 years and five months, will bring about reforms that help regain the people’s trust. A system in which both lawyers and prosecutors agree before the hearings on what points to focus on during the proceedings has already started. A lay-judge system will be introduced by May 2009 to try serious crimes such as murder, rape and arson.
Asahara’s first trial started April 24, 1996, in Tokyo District Court. It ended Feb. 27, 2004, with a death sentence. Over those eight hears, the court held a total of 257 hearings mainly because Asahara’s lawyers contested almost every piece of the enormous amount of evidence presented by the prosecution.
About six months into the trial, Asahara started to refuse to meet his lawyers and began making unintelligible statements during the hearings. In the appellate trial before the Tokyo High Court, Asahara’s newly appointed lawyers delayed submitting their statement of reasons for appealing the district court ruling to the high court, claiming that they were unable to communicate with Asahara.
Although the court postponed the deadline from Jan. 11, 2005, to Aug. 31, 2005, the lawyers missed it. To try to justify the missed deadline, they submitted the results of six psychiatric examinations of Asahara, each of which deemed Asahara unable to communicate and incompetent to stand trial.
On Feb. 20, 2006, a report submitted by a court-appointed psychiatrist to the high court said Asahara had no mental disorder and was competent to stand trial. The reasoning behind this conclusion included Asahara’s reaction on the day the district court gave him the death sentence. When he was returned to his detention cell, he is said to have shouted “Chikusho! (Damn you!).” Last March 24, Asahara’s lawyers said they would submit their statement on March 28. But the court dismissed the trial on March 27.
In turning down a special appeal by the lawyers, the Supreme Court upheld the conclusion of the court-appointed psychiatrist and said there were no compelling reasons for the lawyers to have postponed submission of their statement. It also said Asahara’s refusal to communicate with his lawyers was the main reason for the delayed submission of the statement.
The lawyers are primarily responsible for the irregular way this trial ended. They should have submitted their statement as required and then contested what they regarded as the most important point. The high court could have opted to medically treat Asahara, as proposed by one of the defense counsel’s psychiatrists, but it chose to follow the rules.
Asahara’s trial is over, but much remains to be done, including reviewing why effective investigations into the activities of Asahara and his cult were not launched earlier. Crimes by Aum Shinrikyo might have been prevented had the police paid enough attention to evidence of the cult’s project of creating Armageddon.
In addition, the study of those attracted to Aum, especially those of high intellect, could perhaps shed light on the social causes of such antisocial religious fanaticism.