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Japan's 'trial of the century' begins

Cult leader faces charges in subway gas attack

April 24, 1996
Web posted at: 1:15 a.m. EST

Victim

TOKYO (CNN) -- Riot police ringed the courthouse and helicopters whirred overhead as opening statements began Wednesday in what is being called Japan's trial of the century. Aum Shinri Kyo leader Shoko Asahara went on trial in Tokyo for allegedly masterminding last year's nerve-gas attack on Tokyo subways that killed a dozen people and sickened thousands more.

In an extraordinary gesture, prosecutors began reading aloud a long list of over 3,000 names of victims of the subway attack, evoking strong emotions from relatives of the attack's victims. (859K QuickTime movie)

Michiko Hishinuma, wife of subway stationmaster Tsuneo Hishinuma, who died in the attack, sobbed quietly as her husband's name was read out in slow, measured tones. The reading of the list is expected to take most of Wednesday, after which Asahara will make his plea.

Asahara

The list of charges against Asahara is long and disturbing: 17 criminal charges including more than 20 murders; thousands of attempted murders; and illegal drug and firearms production. But he will only face three of the charges in court Wednesday. So extensive are Asahara's alleged crimes, three more trials will open in rapid succession this year. He is due to return to court Thursday, after which the pace of the trial is expected to slow.

The series of crimes for which Asahara is accused carry steep penalties. Two of the three charges for which he stands trial Wednesday are murder and attempted murder, both of which carry the maximum penalty of death by hanging. And the third charge -- illegal production of the truth serum Tiopental -- carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison, with labor.

The highly anticipated trial was to begin in October last year, but the 41-year-old guru stalled by firing his attorney one day before the trial was to begin. Asahara now has a dozen court-appointed attorneys defending his case.

Japanese public opinion is that this should be an open-and-shut case, and they are watching closely. As many as 12,000 people vied Wednesday for one of the 50 courtroom seats available for the public through a lottery, and as police once again are warning commuters to beware of suspicious packages. Most Japanese believe Asahara deserves to die for his alleged crimes.

"Of course he should get the death penalty," said one female observer. "He caused so many people to suffer so much."

Another man on the street said, "He deserves the death penalty, he killed so many people."

Marshall

Andrew Marshall, who recently co-authored "The Cult at the End of the World," a book detailing the mind of Asahara and the mindset of his doomsday cult, believes the driving force of the cult was Asahara's massive ego.

"He wanted to take over Japan and then eventually world domination," Marshall said. "And this seems laughable to us, but the serious part was that Aum had this armory and it was clearly willing to use it to make the guru's prediction of death and destruction come true."

Deserter

But allegiance to Asahara and his cult, which once boasted more than 10,000 followers, has been faltering. Several former followers whose trials have already begun have broken down and turned against the bearded guru, saying that Asahara was behind each and every crime.

Legal experts say those confessions will lead to Asahara's downfall in court. The cult leader will have a tough time refuting all the damaging testimony and evidence against him. His defense team is expected to focus instead on getting a lighter sentence. But it will be a long and difficult battle; the Asahara trial is expected to last 10 years.

From Correspondent May Lee and wire reports

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