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

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

Issue: "Rethinking divorce," June 13, 1998

In the meantime, why is justice so long delayed?

First and foremost, say legal scholars, Japan's system is unused to criminal activity on the scale of the Aum cases. The sheer numbers have clogged judicial mechanisms accustomed to operating in the most crime-free country in the world. Until late last year, nearly 4,000 indictments for attempted murder were pending in connection with both the Tokyo and Matsumoto gas attacks. Takeshi Tsuchimoto, a criminal law professor at Tsukuba University, estimated that arraignments, under those circumstances, could have taken 20 years. Ms. Iguchi said dropping the indictments was an unprecedented move under Japan's "stubborn" system. "This was done so that the trial could be focused on the murder indictments for the 19 victims who were killed in the gas attacks," she said.

Murder cases lasting a decade are not unusual in Japan. There is no trial by jury. Cases are heard by an independent judge, although decisions in criminal cases are usually made by a panel of judges. Preliminary arraignments are often drawn out in order to nail down a conviction once the case is actually brought to trial. Prosecutors can appeal a not-guilty verdict all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Japanese Bar Association says there is only one judge for every 43,615 Japanese (in the United States, there is 1 judge per 9,504 residents). Judges in Tokyo's district court system average 250 cases on their docket at any given time, and, according to a Supreme Court study,10 percent of the cases reaching the Supreme Court take more than a decade to complete. Everyday crime-fighting tools used in the United States-plea bargaining, grants of immunity, or sting operations-are currently forbidden.

Pedro Moreno, the Rutherford Institute's international coordinator, was in Tokyo in May to attend a conference on religious freedom and to debate the implications of the Aum trials on the legal system. He said Japanese attorneys he spoke with are realizing that the legal system is also not prepared to deal with organized criminal activity on this scale. "They don't lock their doors at night," he said. "This has been a homogenous, secure society. Now they realize that the judicial system is too slow and restrictive. It needs new options to accelerate the process."

Quagmired legal proceedings have obscured the contents of testimony in the Aum cases, particularly the extent of the cult's involvement in germ warfare.

According to court testimony the cult sprayed botulism microbes at targeted sites around Tokyo in April 1990, including U.S. Navy installations in Yokohama and at Yokosuka, headquarters for the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet. A convoy of three trucks sprayed clouds of invisible mist containing the deadly microbes, but to no apparent effect. Altogether, court testimony revealed at least nine biological attacks carried out by the cult prior to the subway attacks; these apparently failed because the germs were not sufficiently virulent. The cult built plants at its Mount Fuji headquarters and 100 miles north, in Naganohara, for advanced production of deadly agents such as anthrax bacteria and sarin gas. Cult members even traveled to former Zaire, hoping to obtain highly contagious strains of Ebola virus. On May 27 Tokyo police discovered eight gas cylinders containing one of the chemical substances used for making the nerve gas sarin. The cylinders, containing hydrogen fluoride, were believed to have been deposited by cult members in a mountain near Nikko, 75 miles northwest of Tokyo.

Mr. Moreno says that, even as the hand of the law needs to be more swift in dealing with Aum Shinrikyo, due process and protection of religious freedom needs to be strengthened.

Japanese lawmakers are debating laws to restrict religious activity and anti-subversive activities in the aftermath of the cult's activities. Those measures, along with an effort to declare Shintoism Japan's official religion, could adversely affect Japan's Christian minority. "In the guise of controlling criminal activity," Mr. Moreno told WORLD, "there is a discriminatory attitude in Japan that could lead to restricting religious activity and blacklisting religious organizations."

Mindy Belz
Mindy Belz

Mindy travels to the far corners of the globe as the editor of WORLD and lives with her family in the mountains of western North Carolina. Follow Mindy on Twitter @mcbelz.

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