Riot police ringed the courthouse, more than 12,000 people vied for spectator seats and helicopters whirred overhead today as doomsday cult leader Shoko Asahara went on trial for murder in the nervegas attack on Tokyo’s subways.
The opening of the long-delayed trial came 13 months after a dozen people were killed and thousands sickened when the deadly nerve gas sarin was spread through subway cars during morning rush hour in Tokyo.
In the months that followed, Japan was rocked by revelations that the cult accused in the attack, which counted the best and brightest from Japan’s elite universities among its leaders, had planned an all-out war on the Japanese government.
Fewer than 50 seats were allotted for the general public to view the opening of what’s being billed here as the trial of the century. But people began gathering at dawn in a park near the courthouse, spreading out mats and drinking canned coffee while they waited for the lottery drawing to get seats.
Most of those waiting were hired by Japanese news organizations wanting to get more seats in court. But some were ordinary citizens who wanted to see Asahara brought to account for the subway attack, which outraged Japan and deeply shook the nation’s sense of security.
“It was such an enormous crime, so unforgivable, that I felt I had to see him with my own eyes,” said 43-year-old Tatsue Suzuki.
Outside the sleek, modern courthouse in central Tokyo, metal car traps were set up and armored vans lined the street. Security was so tight that Asahara’s was to be the only criminal proceeding held in the courthouse.
No TV cameras were allowed during the session, but the sensational trial was receiving blanket coverage. The area near the courthouse was a forest of satellite dishes and antennas, and Japanese correspondents did nonstop live updates.
A police van with its windows covered brought the 41-year-old cult leader to the courthouse two hours before the start of the session.
Before Asahara even enters a plea, prosecutors will read the names of nearly 4,000 alleged victims of the subway attack and other crimes with which he is charged - a gesture meant to drive home the degree of individual suffering caused by the cult.
After the reading of the names, expected to take hours, Asahara will be asked to enter a plea. It was not clear whether he would do so.
If convicted, Asahara could face the death penalty. In Japan, that means he would be hanged.
The trial is expected to take years, with most sessions separated by weeks or months.