Japan: Nerve gas attack cult leader 'fit for trial'

Psychiatrists have concluded a former cult leader sentenced to die for the deadly 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo underground rail system is mentally fit to stand trial if his appeal goes ahead, a court official said today.

Shoko Asahara, the former guru of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to hang in the gas assault and other attacks that killed a total of 27 people and injured thousands of others.

Asahara frequently dozed off, mumbled incoherently and made bizarre gestures during his first trial, which lasted eight years. His lawyers have appealed against the ruling, arguing he was unfit for trial and demanding psychiatric tests.

But court-appointed psychiatrists submitted a report to the Tokyo High Court today saying Asahara “has not lost the ability to stand trial”, a court official said today.

If the court rules Asahara competent, his appeal still could be thrown out because the defence team missed a deadline for filing an explanation of why they were appealing, news reports said. The lawyers have said they missed the deadline because they could not communicate with Asahara.

Asahara lawyer Akio Matsushita said in an email statement he could not comment on the court decision because he had not read the evaluation report.

Asahara was convicted of masterminding the Tokyo assault, in which members of the doomsday cult released deadly sarin gas on trains converging on the government district in central Tokyo. The attack killed 12 people, injured thousands and paralysed the centre of the city.

Asahara was also convicted of plotting a 1994 gas attack in the central Japanese city of Matsumoto that killed seven people, the kidnapping and murder of an anti-cult lawyer and his family, and other murders.

Asahara’s defence has claimed the guru, who was born Chizuo Matsumoto, suffers from pathological mental stress caused by confinement. That assessment was backed up by an expert who examined him recently.

“Matsumoto does not respond when spoken to, or even when touched – he’s incapable of any form of communication whatsoever,” said Masaaki Noda, a psychopathology expert who visited the suspect with the defence team last month.

“His condition is deteriorating steadily. There is no way he is fit to stand trial,” Noda said.

At its height, Aum claimed 10,000 followers in Japan and another 30,000 in Russia.

The group has since renamed itself Aleph, and the Justice Ministry last month extended an order to keep it under close surveillance, saying its activities are still influenced by the teachings of Asahara and other members of his inner circle.

Twelve other members of Asahara’s cult have also been sentenced to death for the gassing and other crimes. None have yet been executed.

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