Features

Justice delayed: Tokyo gets its own O.J. trial

International | Japan's clogged court system struggles to punish a celebrity cultist and his band of terrorists

Issue: "Rethinking divorce," June 13, 1998

The talk of Tokyo is the trial of Shoko Asahara, which has been likened to judicial proceedings against O. J. Simpson. Mr. Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, stands accused of masterminding a widely publicized nerve gas attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995 that resulted in 12 deaths.

In Japan, Mr. Asahara is something of a celebrity-criminal, at one time claiming as many as 10,000 followers. His trial has proven to be an endless parade of frightful revelations of base malevolence. It has revealed, too, the weaknesses of Japan's judicial system, while at the same time highlighting the tenacity of the cult of personality. And, like the L.A. proceedings against the former football star, it just goes on and on.

Since April 1996, there have been 65 trials pertaining to Aum cult members. In addition to the Tokyo subway attack, five Aum members were convicted in a nerve gas attack in Matsumoto that killed seven people in 1994. Legal experts predict that Mr. Asahara's case, as well as others stemming from the March 1995 incident, could go on for more than a decade. Only one trial has ended in a conviction.

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Mr. Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, is the quintessential modern guru, preaching an apocalyptic war from the rear seat of a Rolls Royce. Born half-blind, the 42-year-old studied Hinduism in the Himalayas, as well as his native Buddhism. From Hinduism he identified himself with the god Siva, who is considered lord over creation and destruction. From Christianity he borrowed second-coming analogies and identified himself with Jesus Christ (one of his books is called Declaring Myself the Christ ) in confronting Armageddon. He taught followers to embrace murder and violence as a way of both ridding the world of bad karma and bringing on final judgment. He harnessed scientists and physicians to speed the mass destruction with biological terror.

Mr. Asahara faces 17 charges: They range from murder (eight counts) to illicit manufacture of weapons and drug violations. He has 12 lawyers. None among them appears to have good communication with Mr. Asahara, however, so their tactics have tended toward minute cross-examination of other Aum cult members. The cult leader's eccentric behavior further slows procedures. According to a report by Hiroko Iguchi, a visiting scholar with the Rutherford Institute, he mumbles incoherently during proceedings, falls asleep, or harangues Aum witnesses who testify against him.

Judges face other obstacles in trials of Aum members. Their attorneys argue Mr. Asahara used mind-control techniques to such an extent that his followers did not understand the crimes they were committing. Lawyers for one defendant, Kazuaki Okazaki, say he was placed in an isolated meditation cell for days and deprived of food and sleep to make him amenable to Mr. Asahara's orders.

Mostly rounded up and reviled, the cultists have reportedly ceased large-scale terror operations. Reports persist that 6,000 followers remain, however, raising money for the cult by fronting businesses such as discount computer stores.

One of Mr. Asahara's medical proteges became a central figure in the courtroom drama last week. The medical mastermind behind the sarin gas attacks, Ikuo Hayashi, was sentenced to life imprisonment for his role in the 1995 subway attack. Mr. Hayashi, a former heart surgeon and head of Aum's "medical ministry," actually confessed to planting the deadly sarin nerve gas used in the subway attack. He, along with other cult members, carried plastic bags of the nerve gas onto morning trains, then poked them with sharpened umbrellas. In addition to the deaths, the rush-hour attack injured or sickened 6,000 other commuters. Some remain disabled.

Normally, such crimes would bring on the death penalty in Japan. But prosecutors shifted their tactic in Mr. Hayashi's case last March, stating that Mr. Hayashi "has contributed to the disclosure of the criminal nature of the cult and to the prevention of future crimes." His confession reportedly led to the arrests of Mr. Asahara and 40 other Aum members involved in the subway attack. Mr. Hayashi also apologized to families of the victims during his trial.

The lighter sentence, coming under a system that does not formally recognize plea bargains, received mixed reactions from Japanese legal experts and outrage from relatives of victims. Some criticized it for setting a precedent toward modifying the death penalty. Others are ready to applaud any progress in the protracted Aum cases. The debate will continue as Mr. Asahara's case progresses. Authorities worry that sentencing him to die will make him a martyr, while mounting evidence against him makes capital punishment more likely.

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