AUM founder remains silent as lengthy trial concludes

The trial of AUM Shinrikyo cult founder Shoko Asahara wrapped up Friday with the guru again remaining silent despite his final chance to speak out, while his defense team claimed he is innocent of masterminding a string of gruesome crimes, including the 1995 gas attack on the Tokyo subway system.

In the final hearing of the seven-and-a-half-year trial at the Tokyo District Court, Asahara, 48, dressed in dark blue sweat suit and slippers, was given a last chance to speak, but refused to do so, maintaining the silence he has kept throughout most of his trial on murder and other charges.

Presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa said a ruling will be handed down on Feb. 27. Prosecutors in April demanded the death penalty for the doomsday cult founder.

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Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, has been indicted on 13 charges for crimes committed by AUM members involving the killings of 27 people, the most notorious of which was the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system on March 20, 1995. Twelve people were killed and thousands injured in the attack.

On Friday, Asahara’s state-appointed lawyers said he was not guilty of ordering the Tokyo subway attack and laid the blame on his followers.

The lawyers said prosecutors had failed to prove Asahara actually gave the order, saying testimonies by his followers which they had used in the trial were inconsistent and false.

At the end of the 256th hearing, the lawyers also brushed aside arguments prevailing in public that Asahara’s decision to remain silent throughout the trial prevented authorities from getting to the bottom of the crimes.

Like anyone else, Asahara has the right to remain silent, the lawyers said, adding that if any truths remain uncovered, it was due to failures on the part of police and prosecutors.

But Osamu Watanabe, who heads the group of lawyers, said his team has no plan to defend Asahara if he decides to appeal to a higher court.

Of all those who have stood trial in connection with the crimes, Asahara is the final defendant to face a district court ruling.

After the last hearing, Shizue Takahashi, whose husband was killed in the subway attack, expressed her anger at Asahara for staying silent.

”I don’t want Asahara to live longer than my husband, who died at age 50,” the 56-year-old Takahashi told a news conference.

On Thursday, the first day of the two-day closing arguments by the defense, Asahara’s lawyers also argued that he was not responsible for the other crimes.

They said Asahara did not order the November 1989 killing of the anti-AUM lawyer Tsutsumi Sakamoto, his wife and his infant son, or the June 1994 sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture, that killed seven people.

For most of the trial, in which prosecutors have presented more than 160 witnesses, Asahara has said nothing. In March and April this year, he refused to respond during three question sessions.

On April 24, prosecutors demanded the death penalty for Asahara, calling his actions the most heinous in Japanese criminal history and referring to him as the mastermind behind all the crimes attributed to Aum.

On Wednesday, the Tokyo District Court imposed the death penalty on senior AUM member Tomomasa Nakagawa, bringing to 10 the number of AUM members it has sentenced to death. The first nine are appealing and Nakagawa is expected to appeal as well.

During the first hearing of his trial on April 24, 1996, Asahara did not enter a plea. However, a year later, he pleaded not guilty to all charges except one of attempted murder in a case involving a VX nerve gas attack.

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Kyodo News Service, Japan
Oct. 31, 2003
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