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Possible death sentence due in Japan anime arson trial

Shinji Aoba, who was arrested near the scene, faces five charges including murder, attempted murder and arson and prosecutors are seeking capital punishment (STR)
Shinji Aoba, who was arrested near the scene, faces five charges including murder, attempted murder and arson and prosecutors are seeking capital punishment (STR)

A Japanese man who admitted to starting a fire that killed 36 people at an animation studio in 2019 faces a possible death sentence on Thursday when a court delivers its verdict.

The arson attack four-and-a-half years ago at the studios of Kyoto Animation was Japan's deadliest crime in decades, stunning the anime industry and its fans around the world.

Shinji Aoba broke into the building, spread gasoline around the ground floor, lit it and shouted "drop dead" on the morning of July 18, 2019, survivors said.

Many of those killed were young, including a 21-year-old woman. Victims were found on a stairwell to the roof, suggesting they were overcome as they tried desperately to escape.

"There was a person who jumped from the second floor... but we couldn't rush to help because the fire was so strong," one woman told local media at the time.

"It was like I was looking at hell."

More than 30 others were injured, with firefighters calling the incident "unprecedented" and saying that rescuing people trapped inside was "extremely difficult".

- 'I went too far' -

Aoba, who was arrested near the scene, faces five charges including murder, attempted murder and arson and prosecutors are seeking capital punishment in the high-profile trial.

His lawyers have entered a plea of not guilty, saying he "did not have the capacity to distinguish between good and bad and to stop committing the crime due to a mental disorder".

"I didn't think so many people would die and now I think I went too far," Aoba told the Kyoto District Court when the trial opened in September, media reports said at the time.

Aoba had a "delusion" that the studio known by its fans as KyoAni stole his ideas, prosecutors said, a claim the company has denied.

Aoba himself nearly died in the fire, suffering burns over 90 percent of his body and reportedly needing 12 operations.

He regained consciousness weeks later and was said to have sobbed with relief after undergoing a procedure that restored his ability to speak.

- Death row -

Japan is one of the few developed countries to have retained the death penalty and polls show public support is high.

Criticism from rights groups is rife, with inmates often informed in the morning of their imminent hanging that day.

The last execution was in 2022 and, as of December, 107 people were on death row.

The highest-profile execution of recent years was in 2018, when Japan hanged 13 people -- including the guru of a doomsday cult -- responsible for the 1995 sarin attacks on Tokyo's subway.

- 'Won't come back' -

Founded in 1981 by a husband and wife, KyoAni is a household name for anime fans, responsible for popular TV series including "The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya" and "K-ON!"

After the attack, there was shock and grief in Japan and worldwide, with Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeting that KyoAni's artists "spread joy all over the world and across generations with their masterpieces".

A US animation company raised $2.4 million via crowdfunding to help the firm get back on its feet.

For families of the deceased, the pain of their loss remains excruciating to this day.

"I should have told her not to go to work that morning," the mother of 49-year-old Naomi Ishida told the Mainichi Shimbun daily this week.

"Even if he gets the death penalty, Naomi and others won't come back. I feel empty," said the woman, whose husband died a month before the first hearing.

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