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Mysterious trial of Asahara leaves many questions unanswered

In this April 24, 1996 file photo, a bus carrying AUM Shinrikyo cult leader Shoko Asahara -- whose real name was Chizuo Matsumoto -- is seen departing the Tokyo Detention Center bound for the Tokyo District Court for Asahara's first trial hearing. Asahara was executed on July 6, 2018. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- "My name is Shoko Asahara. I have abandoned that name," Asahara said of his legal name, Chizuo Matsumoto, at the first hearing of his trial in the Tokyo District Court on April 24, 1996. "I am the leader of AUM Shinrikyo," he added, declaring himself the founder of a religion.

This is how the curtain opened on Asahara's trial, which spread out over 257 hearings and lasted roughly 7 years and 10 months.

At first, the cult leader participated enthusiastically in discussions with his legal team about their strategy for his defense. But that attitude began to change at the eighth hearing of his trial in September 1996, when Matsumoto's followers and others began their witness testimonies and told the court that they had carried out the alleged crimes under Matsumoto's orders. During the 13th hearing, which took place that October, Matsumoto even demanded that cross-examination of disciple Yoshihiro Inoue, who had testified about the plot for the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, be blocked. Matsumoto gradually began to repeat statements that didn't make sense, and was ordered again and again to leave the courtroom.

In April 1997 at Matsumoto's 34th hearing, Matsumoto took the stand to concretely testify about the 17 cases over which he was indicted. He admitted to the involvement of the cult in all of the cases, but denied his own involvement in 16 of those cases, saying, "I ordered my followers to halt the sarin gas attack." Mixing in the phrase, "I can speak English a little," and other phrases in English, his testimony was dragged out for close to three hours.

Then, Matsumoto quickly became uninterested in the whole trial itself. During the hearings held from March through April 2003, the bereaved families of his victims called for the death penalty with sharp tongues, but there were times when he would just yawn or even fall asleep. He was even silent during his final testimony in the 256th hearing that wrapped up the hearings.

In Feb. 27, 2004, the court handed down the death penalty. When the sentence was read out in the courtroom, the only movement by Matsumoto, standing with his head hung low, was to make a tight fist with his left hand. When the judge explained the procedures for appeal, he just faintly shook his head like he perhaps had an objection, whispering to himself softly.

(Japanese original by Takeshi Wada, City News Department)

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