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Sick cult leader had visions of nuclear war before deadly toxic gas attacks

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Chizuo Matsumoto was an unusual messiah.

In 1984, the partially-sighted and overweight father of 12, who had a criminal conviction for pretending to be a qualified pharmacist, began to host yoga and meditation classes in his Tokyo apartment.

However, just a few years later, having changed his name to Asahara (the supreme truth), the religious cult he founded, Aum Shinrikyo, had as many as 40,000 members.

But having declared himself Christ, Asahara and his "religion" then took a darker turn, as a secret sect within the group went on a murderous poison gas killing spree which eventually ended with Asahara, and 12 of his followers, being executed by the Japanese authorities.

So why did one man convince a secret band of his followers to kill?

In the early days, Asahara's message of love and hope found favour with thousands of people who were struggling with modern life.

Students at elite Japanese universities and other high brow professionals flocked to hear him speak about how his new religion could solve health woes, bring success and improve people's lives if they followed his "ancient" teachings.

It was soon the fastest growing religion in Japan.

However, as well as followers, Asahara wanted power, and he soon began having darker visions, claiming the world was doomed to suffer World War 3, complete with nuclear Armageddon, and not surprisingly, only his followers would survive.

But not all of them would live long enough to see the forthcoming apocalypse anyway.

In 1986, one follower drowned during a religious ceremony and his body was secretly burnt and his bones ground up and scattered over a nearby lake. When the victim's friend tried to leave the group he was murdered on Asahara's orders.

Such crimes soon became commonplace as Asahara and a small band of devotees began trying to murder other religious leaders, lawyers, journalists and others who spoke out against the cult. Their weapon of choice? Deadly nerve agents and poisons, made in a factory which was owned by a cult follower.

Supporters even flew to Australia to try and buy components for nuclear weapons.

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The death toll grew. In 1989, Tsutsumi Sakamoto was causing Asahara problems. The lawyer had long campaigned against religious cults and claimed Asahara, who sold vials of his blood and bathwater to followers, was exploiting his followers.

He began a lawsuit against him but disappeared, along with his wife and baby. It later transpired several cult members had drugged the family, beaten and then strangled them to death, burying their bodies in three separate metal containers.

In 1994, Asahara had new legal problems. He was expected to lose a real estate case and was angered by the opposition of Matsumoto residents to his plans to set up an office and factory in the area.

His solution? To release poisonous sarin gas outside an apartment block where the judges lived. Eight people died and more than 200 were injured.

But worse was to follow.

Increasingly frustrated by election defeats, desperate to become Emporer, and with bungling police who secretly had cult members in their ranks finally on their trail, the group decided to launch an attack so severe it would bring down the government.

On March 20, 1995, members launched a chemical attack on the Tokyo subway – one of the world's busiest. They carried the liquid nerve agent Sarin – which had been invented by the Nazis – in plastic bags wrapped in paper.

They then dropped the parcels at different places on the train network and punctured them with sharpened umbrella points.

The results were immediate. Thousands of people immediately started choking and vomiting. Some people were blinded and paralysed. In total 13 people died and 5,800 were injured.

As the police investigated the attack, Asahara protested his innocence, while at the same time his followers were unsuccessfully trying to carry out other attacks using cyanide.

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Asahara was eventually arrested and after a seven year trial, during much of which he said next to nothing other than mutter to himself, he was found guilty of multiple murders and eventually hanged in 2018, along with 12 other cult members.

Incredibly, although banned in many countries, the religion lives on under different names.

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