Trial opens for Russian Aum cult members

Five Russian adherents of the Aum Shinrikyo cult went on trial Wednesday on charges of planning to conduct bomb attacks in Japanese cities to force authorities to free the cult's leader.

The group planned to issue the demand for cult leader Shoko Asahara's release just before the Group of Eight summit on Okinawa on July 21-23, 2000. According to the prosecution they had hoped the international spotlight and the threat of bombings would bring a quick response.

Three group members were arrested on July 1, 2000, one was arrested earlier this year and one more at an unspecified date.

Asahara is being tried in Japan on charges of murder and attempted murder for allegedly ordering the March 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway, in which 12 people died and some 5,000 were sickened. Seven members of his cult have been convicted in the attack, in which members entered subway trains at rush hour and punctured bags filled with sarin nerve gas.

The cult gained a number of Russian followers when it was registered in the country from 1992 to 1994. It was later outlawed, but some of the more fanatic adherents kept in contact with one another and continued practicing the cult's teachings.

As a Vladivostok judge read the full indictment against the five suspects at the trial's opening Wednesday, Dmitry Sigachev, their leader, closed his eyes at times as if meditating, becoming agitated only when he heard Asahara's name mispronounced. He loudly interjected with a correction.

The indictment said the Russian adherents had conspired to plant bombs in several previously scouted, busy locations in Japan.

The spots in Tokyo included a gas cylinder warehouse, an apartment building, two stores, a hotel, a major highway intersection, an overpass and the area around a subway station. In another Japanese city, Aomori, their target was a 15-story tourism and trade center.

The indictment said that bombs, four pistols, an assault rifle and other weapons were to have been smuggled to Japan out of Vladivostok. Sigachev was to e-mail the demands to the Japanese prime minister from an Internet-café in Japan and trigger the bombs if the demands were not met.

If released, Asahara was to have been taken by boat to a small town in the region of Vladivostok where the group had purchased an apartment.

The prosecution said Sigachev had received $120,000 from a Japanese cult member at secret meetings in Vienna, Austria, and on Bali Island in Indonesia in 1999. He smuggled the money back into Russia, it said.

According to the indictment, Sigachev told the Japanese cult member that he needed the money to publish the cult's literature and continue preaching.

The suspects caught the attention of security agents after three of them moved from Moscow to Vladivostok in early 2000 and bought weapons and explosives, sparking reports by informers and months of surveillance. Two local residents, car tire dealers, joined the group in Vladivostok.

Sigachev and his two closest assistants were handcuffed as police escorted them into the courtroom and placed them in a special cage Wednesday. One suspect is free on his own recognizance not to leave Vladivostok and another is at hospital for a medical examination. If convicted, the defendants face up to 20 years in prison.