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.

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