Doomsday Cult Leader Fires Lawyer, Forcing Trial Delay
TOKYO (AP) _ In the latest twist in Japan’s doomsday-cult drama, guru Shoko Asahara fired his lawyer today on the eve of his murder trial, forcing a delay.
Court officials said no reason for the firing of Shoji Yokoyama was given in documents delivered to them just before the end of the business day.
Yokoyama was injured in a traffic accident this week while riding in a car driven by a cult member, but the trial was to have gone on in spite of that.
Asahara is charged with masterminding the March 20 attack, which spread deadly sarin gas through packed subway cars at the height of the morning rush hour. The attack killed 12 people and sickened 5,500.
Prosecutors have told the court that Asahara and other cult leaders plotted the gas attack to cause chaos that would head off police action against the group.
A second lawyer, Kenji Nosaki, was retained earlier today, but he quit after Yokoyama was fired.
In Japan, criminal law does not allow a trial to begin if a defendant charged with serious crimes has no lawyer.
The case has attracted intense public interest in Japan. Thousands of people had been expected to line up to try to secure seats in the courtroom for Thursday’s opening session, and Japanese media had created a tent city of makeshift pressrooms near the court.
Court officials said the trial could begin as early as Nov. 2 _ when the second session was scheduled. But they acknowledged it was unlikely a new lawyer could be ready by then.
Analysts said the delay could last months.
``For a complicated case like this, a lawyer needs at least two months to study the case,″ Kazuo Kawakami, a former Tokyo chief detective, told nationally televised NTV news.
Kawakami said the court could take steps to keep Asahara from trying the same tactic again _ it could appoint a lawyer, who could not be fired by Asahara without court approval.
Court official Sukeaki Tatsuoka called the delay ``extremely regrettable.″
The cult was not answering calls to its Tokyo office this evening. There was no answer at Yokoyama’s office, either.
Since the attack, nearly 170 cult members have been charged with crimes ranging from traffic violations to the subway gassing.
Asahara, the cult’s guru, had predicted an apocalypse that only cult members would survive.
Police raids on cult facilities turned up evidence the sect was working to amass chemical, biological and conventional weapons to realize that prediction.
The delay was a disappointment to those who hoped the long-awaited trial would provide the fullest account yet of what went on inside secretive Aum Shinri Kyo.
Attorneys have shunned involvement with the cult, fearing becoming targets of public anger over the attack. The Tokyo Bar Association had to provide a pledge of anonymity to lawyers who did research and other support work in connection with cult cases.
Yokoyama, 67, has legal problems of his own: He faces fraud allegations in connection with past legal services to bankrupt clients.