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Defense Begins Final Arguments in Japan Cult Trial - 2003-10-30

Lawyers for Shoko Asahara, the leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, began their final arguments in a trial that has dragged on for more then seven years. He is accused of masterminding a deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway system, along with several other crimes.

Shoko Asahara, the founder of Japan's notorious Aum Shinrikyo (Supreme Truth Sect), stands accused of ordering two sarin gas attacks and other crimes, which killed 27 people. He is facing a total of 13 charges.

One of the nerve gas attacks took place on the Tokyo subway at rush hour in 1995, terrorizing the nation and shattering the idea of public security in one of the world's safest countries.

Mr. Asahara's attorneys started presenting their final arguments in their last effort to defend him. Throughout the trial, they have argued that Mr. Asahara, though worshipped by his followers, was not responsible for the sect's crimes. They note that Mr. Asahara was not at the scene of the attacks and say that his disciples acted independently.

A Tokyo court has already sentenced 10 cult members to death for their role in the murders, and nine are on appeal.

Shoko Egawa, Japan's foremost expert on the Aum cult, notes that public opinion is overwhelmingly against Mr. Asahara.

She says she thinks the conclusion of Mr. Asahara's trial will help bring closure to the subway incident, which most Japanese remember vividly. She says that most people in Japan support the death sentence for those convicted of the deadly subway attack.

Mr. Asahara's defense team has faced a series of hurdles. He fired his first trial lawyer, and then refused to speak with his court-appointed attorneys. In court, he has never shown remorse, but has mumbled incoherently and has made strange gestures.

He will be given a final chance to make a statement Friday after his lawyers finish their arguments. The court is expected to hand down its verdict on February 27.

The cult still exists, but has just a fraction of the more than 15,000 Japanese followers it had at its height. The group has changed its name to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and says it is no longer violent.

But Japanese officials have the cult under strict surveillance and warn that it is still capable of endangering public safety.