Friday, February 27, 2004

TOKYO — Former doomsday sect guru Shoko Asahara was convicted yesterday and sentenced to hang for masterminding the deadly 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway and other crimes that killed 27 persons and alerted the world to the danger of high-tech terrorism.

Asahara, founder of the apocalyptic Aum Shinri Kyo sect, also was convicted of ordering his followers to produce and stockpile arsenals of conventional and chemical weapons, including the sarin gas used in the subway attack.

Lawyers for the former guru said they would appeal, a step that could take another decade to get through Japan’s understaffed, snail-paced criminal justice system.

The prospect of another lengthy court battle — the trial began in April 1996 — embittered families of the sect’s many victims.

“I am very angry that the trial dragged on for so long, that Asahara virtually ignored the trial, showing no interest in the proceedings, and treated it as though it was none of his business,” said Saburo Yasumoto, whose daughter died in a nerve gas attack on the central Japanese city of Matsumoto in 1994 that killed seven persons.

Asahara’s former disciples had already testified to his puppet-master role in their most terrifying crimes: the subway attack that killed 12 and sickened thousands, the Matsumoto attack, the killing of an anti-sect lawyer and his family and the sect’s ambitious program to stockpile conventional and chemical weapons.

Presiding Judge Shoji Ogawa took hours yesterday to detail the 13 counts against Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.

“Considering the nature of his crimes … the defendant’s criminal responsibility is extremely heavy,” Judge Ogawa said. “We have no other choice but sentence the defendant to death.”

Asahara, 48, stood in silence as the sentence was read. He had entered the courtroom grinning in the morning and made bizarre faces during the session, but said nothing. He became the 12th former Aum member sentenced to death; none has been executed.

Asahara’s trial forced Japan to revisit the subway attack, which shattered the nation’s self-image as a low-crime haven.

The verdict comes amid fears of terrorism in Japan, linked to its sending troops for a humanitarian mission in Iraq. The country went on heightened alert last week, beefing up security at airports and other public places. Hundreds of police were on duty at the court yesterday.

At its height, Aum claimed 10,000 followers in Japan and 30,000 in Russia. The guru used a mixture of Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and yoga to entice his devotees, who engaged in chilling rituals such as drinking his blood and bathwater.

The subway gassing was Aum’s most horrific crime. Five sect members pierced bags of sarin — originally developed by the Nazis — on separate trains as they converged in Tokyo’s government district as a pre-emptive strike against police.

The attack sent the country into a panic as sickened, bleeding passengers stumbled from subway stations.

Survivors still suffer from headaches, breathing troubles and dizziness. The sect was ordered in separate court proceedings to pay $35 million in damages to the victims.

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