Russian members of Japan's Aum sect go on trial

VLADIVOSTOK, Russia (Reuters) - Five Russian members of Japan's Aum Shinrikyo doomsday sect accused of plotting to free imprisoned cult leader Shoko Asahara, went on trial in Russia's Pacific coast port of Vladivostok on Wednesday.

Russia's FSB domestic security service said the men, who appeared in a metal cage as is the practice in Russian courts, had gathered weapons and explosives to blackmail the Japanese government into freeing the Aum leader.

Asahara has been on trial for six years on charges of organising a 1995 nerve-gas attack in the Tokyo subway in which 12 people died and thousands were hurt.

"Had the Japanese government not agreed to their ultimatum to free Shoko Asahara, they had planned explosions to take place immediately in several Japanese cities," an FSB official told Reuters.

Dmitry Sigachyov, leader of the Russian group, told reporters ahead of the trial that he intended to plead guilty, but no pleas were entered on the opening day.

Russian news agencies said the accused, charged with terrorism, illegal possession of arms and smuggling, could face from five to 20 years in prison.

Aum Shinrikyo was one of several cults that attracted a large following in the former Soviet Union in the turmoil that followed the collapse of communism in the 1990s.

Founded in 1993, the Russian branch of the sect ran half a dozen centres in Moscow and claimed 30,000 followers -- three times more than in Japan -- before it was banned by Moscow courts in 1995. Cult followers have denied any wrongdoing.

The FSB tracked down the Vladivostok group after an Interior Ministry operation uncovered an internet site seeking "a specialist able to make explosives to go off at a set time".

Investigators later established the group was preparing explosive devices that could be detonated from anywhere in the world, using mobile telephones. Among the targets was a site 250 metres (yards) from the prison where Asahara was being held, and the busy Ueno park in central Tokyo.

Sigachyov had planned to fly legally to Japan to oversee the attacks, while the rest of the team would bring weapons into the country illicitly by power boat.

Sigachyov and two co-defendants, Boris Tupeiko and Dmitry Voronov, are being held in custody while a fourth, Alexander Shevchenko, was told not to leave Vladivostok. A fifth cult member, Alexei Yorchuk, was certified insane, a court official said. It was not yet clear whether he would stand trial.

In a bid to project a new image, Aum Shinrikyo changed its name to Aleph -- the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet -- in January 2000.