I'm sorry, says body-in-bathtub killer Tatsuya Ichihashi as he faces family in court

 

Tokyo

The Japanese man accused of murdering Lindsay Hawker has apologised to her family for raping and strangling the British teacher, but he denied intent to kill in the opening yesterday of his long-awaited trial outside Tokyo.

With parents Bill and Julia Hawker and their two daughters looking on, Tatsuya Ichihashi surprised the packed court yesterday as he entered by falling to his knees and repeatedly bowing.

"I did not intend to kill her, but I am responsible for her death. I am very sorry for what I did," he later sobbed after formally denying the murder charges.

Ichihashi's team of six lawyers have worked pro bono, persuading him to face the trial when he went on hunger strike following his capture after more than two years on the run.

The team has written several times to his parents, asking them to testify on his behalf but they were absent yesterday as Ichihashi told the court that he intended to take the blame for the killing.

"I was the one who raped Lindsay. I was the one who put her through a scary experience and took her life," he said. The trial has attracted huge media interest in Japan.

Arriving in Tokyo on Sunday with his family, Bill Hawker was surrounded by reporters as he explained he had come to "seek justice" for his daughter. "I want to see Ichihashi, look him in the eye and ask him why he did this," he said.

Ichihashi, 32, is accused of beating and raping the Coventry woman in March 2007 before crushing her windpipe and burying her in a bath of sand on the balcony of his suburban Tokyo flat. His lawyers claim that he panicked when Ms Hawker screamed for help and accidentally strangled the 22-year-old before later trying to revive her.

As her body decomposed, the police paid a botched visit to his flat the following day. The barefoot killer barged past nine officers and disappeared into the surrounding buildings.

Penniless, friendless and shoeless, the police expected him to turn up within hours. But Ichihashi kept running for more than 30 months. The escape sparked a sprawling, sometimes bizarre manhunt. Ms Hawker's family paid several visits to Japan to urge the investigation on and ask the public for help as rumours spread that Ichihashi had fled the country or quietly committed suicide.

By the time he was caught in November 2009, his face – altered by plastic surgery – would be one of the most famous in Japan.

The defendant could face the death penalty if convicted by the panel of six lay judges and three professional judges, who will deliver the verdict on 21 July.

His supporters say he had a clean record until Ms Hawker entered his flat. "He's not a monster," says Naoki Motoyama, Ichihashi's old karate teacher and now head of a support group collecting money for his trial. "He's a young man who made a terrible mistake."

Ms Hawker was among thousands of foreign teachers who come to Japan each year to teach languages. She had been awarded a first in biology from the University of Leeds in 2006 and – burned out from studying – decided to take a year out and teach English at Nova, then Japan's largest private language chain.

Ichihashi had approached her one evening after work in March 2007 and asked if she would be his private English teacher. Four days later, she was dead.

Killer's life on the run

* Earlier this year, Ichihashi penned a controversial book from prison about his life on the run, adding bizarre detail to a crime that enthralled Japan.

Calling it an "act of contrition" for Ms Hawker's death, the book records his extraordinary attempts to avoid being captured. In sometimes grisly detail, Ichihashi describes how he survived on rubbish, visited shrines in an attempt to atone for the killing and mutilated his face with a box-cutter knife to disguise his appearance.

Using the alias Kosuke Inoue, he hid out among tramps and day labourers in the flop-house district of Ibaraki Prefecture, north-west of Tokyo, and worked on building sites. Later, he would save enough to pay for plastic surgery.

But his book fails to shed any light on what happened on the day of the killing.

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