Thousands of people, including several hundred journalists, gathered outside a Tokyo court yesterday as the first defendant in the subway nerve gas attack went on trial for murder. Tomomasa Nakagawa, a senior member of the Aum Shinri Kyo doomsday cult, admitted manufacturing the type of sarin nerve gas used in the attack.
The central trial, that of the Aum guru, Shoko Asahara, which is due to begin tomorrow, was thrown into doubt earlier in the week after his lawyer, Shoji Yokoyama, was involved in a car accident. Although he suffered only minor injuries, Mr Yokoyama was ordered to spend two weeks in bed, provoking suspicions that the cult was trying to delay the trial. However, court officials confirmed the lawyer will attend, and that the most sensational trial in Japan's recent history will go ahead.
Several Aum members have already been sentenced on lesser indictments but yesterday's charges against Dr Nakagawa, Asahara's personal doctor, were the first to touch directly on the sarin killings. For the first time, prosecutors described in detail the events leading to the attack, which killed 11 people and injured thousands of others on 20 March.
Dr Nakagawa, 32, pleaded not guilty to murder and attempted murder, but admitted manufacturing the deadly gas at the personal request of his leader and former patient. "Asahara ordered the production of sarin in mid-March," he told the Tokyo District Court. "It is not incorrect to say that I produced the sarin, and sealed the liquid in plastic bags. I knew sarin was a dangerous chemical, but I was not aware of any conspiracy to release it."
Asahara tried to plunge the central part of Tokyo into "utter turmoil" to head off police raids, the prosecutor, Tadahiko Miyazaki, told the three judges. The attack was aimed at police investigating the disappearance of a Tokyo man believed to have been abducted by Aum in February. The cult learned of police plans to raid its commune on the slopes of Mt Fuji, and on the night of 19 March a team lead by Dr Nakagawa produced the liquid sarin in the laboratories.
Five kilograms were sealed into polythene bags which were carried onto subway trains the following morning. As the trains converged on Kasumigaseki station, yards from the National Police Agency, government ministries and the Tokyo District Court, the bags were pierced with sharpened umbrellas.
Dr Nakagawa admitted strangling an Aum follower who was accused of treachery by Asahara, but said that he did so to release him from agony, when he was on the verge of death. Like Asahara, he faces the death penalty if convicted, although the trial could last two years.