Japan gripped as 'doom' cult trial begins

Gas attack guru seeks 'truth, happiness and freedom', writes Richard Lloyd Parry in Tokyo

The last time Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinri Kyo 'Doomsday' cult, was seen in public was 11 months ago.Then he was little more than a blurred shape, glimpsed through the windows of a police van. So when he appeared yesterday in chamber number 104 of the Tokyo District Court, no one knew what to expect.

How would he plead to the principal charge against him: that, along with a host of other murders and kidnappings, he ordered the sarin nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway in March last year? Would he be contrite or defiant? Leaks from the justice ministry correctly predicted that he would not be allowed to wear his purple guru robes - instead he wore blue prison overalls. But no one had anticipated that the man held responsible for the deaths of at least two dozen Japanese and the poisoning of 5,500 others, would end up sounding like Princess Diana and Mother Teresa rolled into one.

Six-and-a-half hours into his trial, after the names of each one of the 3,789 people killed or injured in the attack had been read out, Mr Asahara was invited to respond.

"I have always wanted to help those who have not attained absolute truth, freedom and happiness," he said, "and I still want to do so. Those who don't know truth, freedom and happiness are in agony, and I have striven to ease their pain with a sympathetic heart. I don't care about the inconvenience and pain being inflicted upon me, and I don't care about my life either. I have nothing more to say."

The final outcome - conviction and, most likely, death by hanging for Mr Asahara - is in little doubt, but it will be a long haul. The wheels of the Japanese justice system grindslowly. Optimistic estimates expect the case to be done with in five years; if past precedent is anything to go by, Mr Asahara's execution may not be announced until the second decade of the next century.Chances of acquittal are minute: the conviction rate in Japan's district courts is 99.8 per cent.

But Mr Asahara's is no ordinary case. The sarin subway attack, which killed 12 commuters and poisoned thousands of others was not motivated by the usual terrorist goals. According to former followers of the guru it was intended as the first step to Armageddon, ending with a new world order presided over by Mr Asahara. His words yesterday suggest his convictions remain intact.

Japanese courts have no juries, and the final verdict will be delivered by a panel of four judges. But earlier courts have been lenient on Aum followers on the understanding that they were acting on the guru's orders: he has already been convicted.

The deluge of coverage intensified yesterday, with coverage of the trial dominating all the television news channels. A dozen television helicopters buzzed over head as 12,000 people queued yesterday morning for a lottery allocating the 48 public seats in the court.

Among the people queuing was Hiroshi Teruya, a member of a comedy act called the National Academy Kalashnikov Chorus. The troupe performs skits based on the Aum affair."It's black comedy," Mr Teruya admitted, "a bit like Monty Python." It was unclear whether he was referring to his material, or the trial.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
wimbledonScot will face Ivo Karlovic next
Sport
football
News
Hillary Clinton comments on viral Humans of New York photo of gay teenager
Arts and Entertainment
The gang rape scene in the Royal Opera’s production of Gioachino Rossini’s Guillaume Tell has caused huge controversy
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Spanish Speaking

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - German Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator - Japanese Speaking

£17000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: If you are fluent in Japanese a...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Immediate Start

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
10 best statement lightbulbs

10 best statement lightbulbs

Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

Dustin Brown

Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test