The saga of the Aum Shinri Kyo religious sect took a confusing turn last night when the trial of the cult's guru, Shoko Asahara, was suddenly postponed after he dismissed his lawyer.
Mr Asahara had been due to appear in court for the first time this morning on three charges, including the murder of 11 commuters poisoned by sarin nerve gas on the Tokyo subway in March. Thousands were expected to queue for seats in the public gallery, and police in Tokyo were put on alert against any possible retaliation by the disciples of the guru.
But as the national evening news began a lengthy preview of the case, a startling announcement was made: Mr Asahara's only lawyer, Shoji Yokoyama, had been sacked. Capital charges cannot be heard without a defender, so court officials had to put off the trial.
The move appears to be a delaying tactic on the part of Mr Asahara, who is charged with ordering several other murders and abductions, as well as the manufacture of illegal drugs and two separate sarin attacks.
Suspicions were raised on Sunday when Mr Yokoyama, 67, a seedy character reputed to have links with organised crime syndicates, was involved in a crash, in a car that was driven by a member of the cult. Despite apparently minor injuries he obtained a doctor's note ordering him to remain in hospital for two weeks, but was persuaded by court officials to appear for his defendant.
Yesterday, wearing a neck brace, he visited Mr Asahara in his cell at the National Police Agency headquarters, where he was dismissed. A second lawyer took on the case but resigned a few hours later.
The incident raises questions about the future course of the trial, the most complex in Japanese history.Assuming Mr Asahara is convicted, lawyers believe it could be at least 15 years before a death sentence is carried out, once a lengthy trial and pleas for clemency are taken into account.
In the absence of a lawyer, a defendant is assigned one by the state. The difficulty in Mr Asahara's case is persuading anyone to take him on. One of the cult's alleged victims was a lawyer, strangled and lethally injected with his wife and infant son.