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Trial Set To Open For Cult Leader Japanese Prosecutors Will Read Names Of Nerve-Gas Victims

Sun., April 21, 1996

First he will have to listen to the names.

Prosecutors plan an uncharacteristically dramatic gesture when doomsday cult leader Shoko Asahara finally goes on trial Wednesday for murder in last year’s nerve-gas attack on the Tokyo subways.

Even before the 41-year-old guru is asked to make his plea, his accusers will recite a grim litany: a list of about 3,300 people who were sickened or killed in the attack.

They were salarymen and subway workers, teachers and “office ladies,” mothers and brothers, sisters and sons - ordinary commuters who found themselves, on that sunny spring morning, caught up in an extraordinary act of terror.

This symbolic calling to account may be the closest the Japanese public will come for some time to a sense of catharsis about Asahara and his cult, Aum Shinri Kyo.

The complex trial, with sessions separated by weeks, is expected to drag on for years, and appeals could prolong the process into the next century. If convicted, Asahara could face execution by hanging.

The trial was supposed to have begun in October, but in what was widely viewed as a delaying tactic, Asahara fired his lawyer on the eve of the opening session, forcing a postponement.

The six-month delay has only given prosecutors more ammunition against him. In separate trials and interrogation sessions, followers have implicated him in a growing tangle of murder, kidnapping and other crimes.

First and foremost is the subway attack, which Asahara is accused of masterminding. The deadly sarin gas that spread through train cars on March 20, 1995, killed 12 people and sickened more than 5,500 others.

For reasons having to do with rules of evidence, Asahara is formally charged with 11 murders and causing injury to about 3,300 others. Those are the names that will be read.

Asahara also faces more than a dozen other charges, including another nerve-gas attack in central Japan in 1994 that killed seven people, and the murder of an anti-cult lawyer and his wife and infant son.

Public fascination with the case is strong. Thousands of people are expected to line up for the 50 public seats available.

No TV cameras will be allowed during the hearings, but photographs of the courtroom are allowed for two minutes before the session begins.

Because of persistent public fury over the attack, few lawyers wanted to be associated with Asahara’s defense. The Japan Bar Association had to plead with attorneys to help with research and strategy, promising anonymity.

In the months since the attack, more than 170 cultists have been accused of crimes, some as minor as bicycle theft and some as grave as murder. About 100 cultists have been sentenced.

In court, many cultists have described feelings of remorse over their association with Asahara and Aum. But a few still cling to the fallen guru, whose followers once had slavish rituals that included the drinking of his blood and bathwater.

Around 100 cultists remain at Aum’s Mount Fuji compound. The cult, which once claimed upward of 10,000 members, has been stripped of its religious status and declared bankrupt, allowing the government to seize its assets.

Tags: terrorism

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