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Man pleads not guilty in Japan murder of 19 at care home

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Yokohama (Japan) (AFP)

The man accused of the 2016 murder of 19 disabled people at a Japanese care home admitted the attack as his trial opened Wednesday but pleaded not guilty on grounds of diminished capacity.

Satoshi Uematsu, a former employee of the care centre outside Tokyo, did not dispute his involvement in the horrifying stabbing rampage during his first court appearance on charges including murder.

After prosecutors read out the details of the charges, the judge asked Uematsu "is there anything in the charges that differs from the facts?"

"No there isn't," Uematsu replied, dressed in a navy suit with a white shirt and tie, his long black hair tied back in a ponytail.

But despite admitting the attack, Uematsu's lawyers entered a plea of not guilty, saying their client was suffering a "mental disorder" at the time.

"He was in a condition in which either he had no capacity to take responsibility or such a capacity was significantly weakened," his lawyer said.

Traces of marijuana were found in Uematsu's system after the attack, and his legal team has claimed drug use may have affected him.

The session was disrupted shortly after it began when court security restrained Uematsu after he reportedly attempted to put something in his mouth.

The disturbance prompted the judge to call an unscheduled recess, though the session was due to resume in the afternoon.

- 'I had to do it' -

Uematsu has reportedly said he wanted to eradicate all disabled people in the horrifying attack at the Tsukui Yamayuri-en centre in the town of Sagamihara outside Tokyo.

The 29-year-old is accused of breaking into the facility and moving room-to-room, killing 19 people and injuring 26 -- half of them seriously.

He turned himself in at a police station, carrying bloodied knives and admitting the attack to officers.

It emerged later that Uematsu had left his job at the home just months before the attack, and had been forcibly hospitalised after telling colleagues he intended to kill disabled people at the centre.

But he was discharged after 12 days when a doctor deemed him not a threat. He had also written a letter outlining plans to attack the home, claiming "disabled people only create unhappiness."

He faces the death penalty if convicted on some of the six charges, including murder, with a verdict expected on March 16.

Since his arrest, Uematsu has shown no remorse, telling Japan's Mainichi Shimbun daily in an interview that people with mental disabilities "have no heart", and "there's no point in living" for them.

"I had to do it for the sake of society," he said of the attack.

- Questions about integration -

Uematsu's self-styled mission to rid the country of people with disabilities shocked Japan, with experts and activists raising questions about whether others might hold similar views.

Japan has been making efforts to increase accessibility -- particularly in Tokyo ahead of this year's Paralympic Games -- and activists hailed last year's election of two disabled lawmakers.

But some critics feel the country still falls short of fully integrating people with disabilities, and the government last year was forced to admit data on hiring people with disabilities had been padded to meet quotas.

Hundreds of people lined up outside the courtroom in the rain for a chance to attend the first session.

"I want to know why he came to have such ideas about disabled people," Yuki Kuriyama, 41, who uses a wheelchair, told AFP.

"I am worried not only about a man who thinks that way but also about this entire society where there are some people who apparently agree with his ideas."

Many of the names of those killed in the rampage have been withheld by family members fearful of similar attacks or discrimination.

The relative of a 55-year-old man killed at the home told NHK that a long-time neighbour had remarked afterwards: "It's sad that it happened, but wasn't it good for you?"

Among the few victims to be identified publicly was a 19-year-old woman, Miho, whose mother told Japanese media she hoped the trial would start a conversation on "how we can build a society to prevent a recurrence of this sad incident".

"I want Miho to be remembered," she added. "She was a daughter we were very proud of."

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