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Verdict in Japan Cult Case Expected Soon - 2004-02-26

A verdict is expected this week in Japan's worst domestic terrorism incident. Shoko Asahara, the founder of the Aum Supreme Truth cult, is charged with ordering a deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995. He faces the death penalty in connection with that attack, and a number of others that killed at least 27 people.

The closely watched eight-year-long trial is expected to come to an end Friday in Japan. A court is scheduled to hand down a verdict against 48-year-old Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday cult.

Cult members released poisonous sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system in 1995, killing 12 people and injuring more than five thousand others.

Prosecutors say Mr. Asahara masterminded that attack. He is also charged with involvement in 15 other killings, including a separate 1994 sarin attack that killed seven people in the city of Matsumoto. Prosecutors requested that he be sentenced to death by hanging, calling him Japan's "most heinous criminal."

Defense lawyers argued the attacks were planned by a senior cult member - who is now dead - along with other followers who misinterpreted the leader's teachings.

Some of those injured in the 1995 Tokyo sarin attack remain very sick. The brother of one woman, who suffered irreversible damage to her nervous system, recently spoke to Japan's Fuji Television. He says the sarin attack was aimed at destroying the country. He adds that his sister's life will never be the same, and that he hopes the cult leader receives the death sentence.

Eleven other Aum cult members have already been sentenced to death. Most of them are appealing their sentence, as Mr. Asahara may choose to do if he is convicted.

Mr. Asahara refused to testify in his trial but has made odd hand gestures and a few strange remarks. He has acknowledged he is responsible for the crimes committed by the group, but at the same time professes his innocence.

The precise motive for Aum's killings is unclear. However, Mr. Asahara has previously predicted the world was coming to an end and advised cult members to take up arms and prepare for Armageddon.

Most of Aum's leaders are in prison, but the cult remains active and has renamed itself Aleph. Members say it is now a benign religious group but the Japanese police monitor it closely and raided its offices earlier this month, fearing it was planning another attack to coincide with its leader's verdict. Police suspect that Mr. Asahara continues to strongly influence the group.