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Asahara: Enigmatic symbol of evil

Asahara refused to enter a plea.
Asahara refused to enter a plea.

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* Sarin developed, but not used by the Nazis during World War Two.

* Extremely toxic, affects the nervous system.

* Can be inhaled as a gas or absorbed through skin.

* Suffocates victims by paralysing the muscles around the lungs.

* Single drop can kill a person in a few minutes.

* Iraq believed to have used against Kurds in the 1980s.

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TOKYO, Japan (Reuters) -- A pudgy, nearly-blind yoga teacher who claimed he could levitate and predicted nuclear Armageddon, former Japanese cult leader Shoko Asahara mesmerized thousands of followers before he was arrested eight years ago and charged with ordering a deadly gas attack on the Tokyo subway.

Now Asahara stands as a symbol of evil for a Japanese public shocked to its core by the 1995 sarin nerve gas attack, which shattered Japan's image as a citadel of safety.

The son of a poor "tatami" (straw mat) maker and one of seven siblings, Asahara -- whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto -- graduated from a school for the blind, where he was described by some as ambitious and by others as a bully.

Years later, as the pyjama-clad, bearded leader of a cult with 10,000 members in Japan and others in Russia and elsewhere, Asahara rode in a white Rolls Royce and was served by followers catering to his every need.

The cult combined supernatural forecasts of a coming apocalypse -- it predicted the United States would attack Japan and turn it into a nuclear wasteland -- with a frightening ability to produce high-tech modes of mass destruction.

Asahara's first job was as an acupuncturist and in the early 1980s he sold traditional Chinese medicine, reportedly amassing wealth by sales of potions like tangerine peel in alcohol.

Next he studied yoga and started a school to teach it. Then, according to cult literature, he travelled to the Himalayas to study Hinduism and Buddhism and meet the Dalai Lama.

In 1987, Asahara registered his Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth Sect), which was attracting some of the brightest science students from elite universities, as an official religious organisation.

Three years later, Asahara and a score of his followers ran for parliament but the cult guru won only a smattering of votes.

Doubts about Aum deepened as some parents insisted their children were its prisoners and an anti-sect lawyer, Tsutsumi Sakamoto, disappeared with his wife and baby.

No explanation

Asahara was said to have commanded absolute loyalty among his followers, who were forced to submit to the strict rules of an ascetic communal life, including a gruelling initiation ceremony and meditation for days in solitary confinement.

Cult members studied Asahara's works and performed rites such as swallowing water and then vomiting it up to "purify" their bodies, and drinking his bathwater to aid enlightenment.

Raids on Aum's sprawling complexes at the foot of Mount Fuji after the subway attack found the cult had amassed stockpiles of high-tech equipment and dangerous chemicals such as sarin.

Asahara, who is also accused of being behind a sarin attack in central Japan that killed seven people in 1994 as well as ordering the murder of lawyer Sakamoto and his family in 1989 and being responsible for the deaths of several cult members, has never testified.

No one knows for sure why the attacks were carried out.

He refused to enter a plea until telling the court he was innocent a year after the trial began and has since only made confusing and unintelligible remarks in the courtroom, including babbling English words.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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