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Japan's subway gas attack trial thrown into confusion

Asahara

Cult leader claims responsibility, yet innocence

October 18, 1996
Web posted at: 11:30 a.m. EDT (1530 GMT)

In this story:

TOKYO (CNN) -- A courtroom outburst Friday by the cult leader accused of masterminding last year's nerve gas attack on Tokyo subways threw his murder trial into confusion. For the first time, Shoko Asahara admitted responsibility for the actions of his followers but he also declared his innocence because he said he was not personally involved in carrying out the crime.

Saying he had heard from God, Asahara also warned court- appointed defense lawyers they would die if they continued questioning former cult member and top aide, Yoshihiro Inoue, who has confessed to the gassing and named Asahara as the mastermind.

"Yoshihiro Inoue was formerly my disciple. He is also a man of accomplishment. I would like to shoulder responsibility for all incidents. So please stop questioning him," the bearded Asahara said, apparently trying to protect Inoue who was being cross-examined.

'Instructed by God'

"I was instructed by God in my detention cell this morning," said Asahara, 41, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto.

It was the first time in the six-month trial that Asahara has admitted to the sarin gas attack March of 1995, which killed 12 and made some 6,000 ill.

The trial immediately went into recess and, when it resumed 30 minutes later, Asahara made another surprising comment: "Although I am completely innocent, I don't want to torment the great soul of a man like Inoue," he said. "Please stop questioning Inoue."

A contradiction?, Not really

Inoue

As contradictory as Asahara's statements may seem, they are not, if put into the context of Japanese culture and its idea of hierarchy.

A leader of a group or business is responsible for the actions of his subordinates, even if he had nothing to do with the act itself. In Asahara's case, he claims he is innocent but says he is willing to shoulder the responsibility.

Not a formal plea

Legal experts say Asahara's unexpected and confusing comments won't go on the record as official confessions or pleas and will have little impact on the trial's future proceedings.

He has refused to enter a formal plea. But scores of his followers have testified in court in their own trials that he ordered the gas attacks and other crimes.

Asahara, arrested in May 1995, has been indicted on 17 charges ranging from murder to illegal production of drugs and weapons. He faces the death penalty by hanging if convicted.

His sect, called Aum Shinri Kyo (Supreme Truth), is a doomsday cult that prosecutors say planned to bring down the Japanese government with its attacks.

The trial is set to resume on November 7. A verdict is not expected for many months.

Correspondent May Lee and Reuters contributed to this report.

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