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Final ruling on Japan cult guru imminent -reports

Written by: Staff

TOKYO, Sep 11 (Reuters) Japan's Supreme Court will soon deliver its final verdict on the former leader of a Japanese doomsday cult sentenced to hang for masterminding a fatal gas attack on Tokyo subways 10 years ago, Japanese media said today.

Lawyers for Shoko Asahara had filed a special appeal to the court in May after the Tokyo High Court rejected appeals that the former guru was mentally unfit to stand trial and that the case should be suspended.

The Supreme Court's decision could pave the way for Asahara, whose real name is Chizuo Matsumoto, to be hanged for his role in masterminding the nerve gas attack that killed 12 and made thousands ill.

Kyodo news agency, quoting unnamed legal sources, said the decision was unlikely to be prolonged. Public broadcaster NHK carried a similar report.

A spokesman for the Supreme Court and a lawyer for Asahara both said they were unaware of when the ruling would be made.

Asahara, 51, was found guilty of responsibility for the gas attack and sentenced to death by the Tokyo District Court in February 2004.

Asahara's lawyers had argued that the former leader of Aum Shinri Kyo, or Supreme Truth Sect, was incompetent, and they had asked that the case be suspended.

Asahara's lawyers have said their client has been unable to speak or to communicate with them and should be moved to a hospital for treatment of his mental condition.

But the Yomiuri newspaper, quoting unnamed sources, reported yesterday that Asahara had said: ''I'm innocent, I was trapped,'' after the Tokyo High Court's rejection of his lawyers' appeal in late March, a sign he is mentally fit.

The gas attack on Tokyo rush-hour trains on March 20, 1995, injured about 5,500 people, some permanently, when members of the cult released sarin, first developed by Nazi Germany.

The gassing, with its images of bodies lying across platforms and soldiers in gas masks sealing off Tokyo subway stations, stunned the Japanese public and shattered the country's self-image as a haven of public safety.

Asahara was also found guilty of other charges including a series of crimes that killed 15 people.

Asahara set up the cult in 1987, mixing Buddhist and Hindu meditation with apocalyptic teachings and attracting, at its peak, at least 10,000 members in Japan and overseas, including graduates of some of the nation's elite universities.

The nearly blind guru had predicted that the United States would attack Japan and turn it into a nuclear wasteland.

Aum Shinri Kyo, which admitted involvement in the gassing, later changed its name to Aleph, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Its leaders insist the cult is now benign, but Japanese authorities still keep its membership of more than 1,000 under surveillance.

Reuters DKB VP0847

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