Court to decide on trial for Russian doomsday prophet

Penza, Russia - Closed court sessions began on Tuesday in Russia's Penza Region to decide whether the leader of a doomsday sect that spent more than six months underground should be held criminally responsible for his actions.

"The sessions will be closed, and no comments will be made during the entire process," a judicial spokesman said before the first court session.

The court sessions will take place in the psychiatric ward where Pyotr Kuznetsov has been held in since last year.

Although the sect leader has already been declared legally insane, the court will attempt to determine his mental state at the time his followers first went underground. Two members of the sect perished in the dugout, one from malnutrition brought about during fasting, and another from cancer.

If the court finds that Kuznetsov was criminally responsible at the time of the group's retreat from society, the case will be turned over to state prosecutors. If not, charges of 'creating a violent organization' will be dropped, and the court will rule on what medical treatment Kuznetsov requires.

Thirty-five members of the sect went underground in the Penza Region in November to wait for the end of the world, which they initially claimed would come in May. Kuznetsov is reported to have said they would be given the power to decide who would be sent to hell and who would go to heaven after the Apocalypse. The sect pledged to commit mass suicide if any attempt was made to force them to come to the surface.

Following the collapse of the dugout's roof after heavy rain in late March, 24 members of the group quit the shelter. It was subsequently revealed that the bodies of two women were buried in the shelter. The remaining members of the sect quit the dugout on May 16.

Kuznetsov did not join his fellow sect members underground, speaking of "another calling in life." A number of former sect members have been called as witnesses.

Despite one member of the sect claiming that the group is an offshoot of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the sect has generally been considered part of a wave of extreme Russian Orthodoxy in Russia and some former Soviet republics. Adherents of this radical form of Christianity refuse to own passports, as they "contain the number of the Beast", and will not handle money or consume products packaged in containers bearing 'Satanic' barcodes.