Aum cult case moves to trial stage

Russian security agents have arrested the last of four suspects accused of planning explosions in Japan to demand freedom for the leader of the cult responsible for the fatal 1995 gas attack in the Tokyo subway.

Alexei Yurchuk was detained on July 13, just days after investigators had completed building a case against three other members of the group, a statement from the Federal Security Service, or FSB, said Monday.

The case, sent to court earlier this month, says that the Russians were adepts of the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult founded by now-jailed Shoko Asahara. They allegedly planned to demand Asahara's release just before last year's summit of the heads of the leading industrial powers in Japan. The group hoped that the international spotlight and the threat of bombings would make the nation more responsive.

According to excerpts of the case televised on the national ORT channel, the fanatics stockpiled bombs and weapons, arranged to enter Japan as tourists and sailors and even chose target cities - Tokyo, Aomori and Sapporo. But arrests thwarted their plans three weeks before the July 21-23, 2000 summit.

Agents of Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, apprehended the three members, including the leader, in the Pacific port of Vladivostok on July 1. The fourth member managed to escape then.

The FSB said Dmitry Sigachev, who led the group, obtained dlrs 100,000 to finance their conspiracy from one of the Japanese chiefs of the outlawed cult. He then traveled to Japan twice to film and photograph potential sites for planting bombs.

"We will make a short tour to the seaside and you will see the nature of Japan as well as wonderful places that will undoubtedly make history, with our help," Sigachev said, grinning in footage that the FSB said it had seized.

The potential bombing sites included congested highways, crowded streets and even a kindergarten where canisters of propane gas are stored outside.

In one of the seized photographs, Sigachev poses before a fence at Asahara's prison in Tokyo.

"The Teacher is behind this wall as yet. Nothing is indefinite," he wrote on the reverse side.

According to the ultimatum that the group planned to email to then Japan Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, it wanted the release of not only Asahara, but also his son and one of Asahara's followers, all of whom "present an exceptional value for all progressive humankind." The potential terrorists also wanted dlrs 10 million in cash.

"Otherwise, our battle group deployed on the territory of Japan will embark on the systematic and cruel extermination of Japanese and foreign citizens, without distinction between men, women, old people and children," the ultimatum threatened.

Boris Tupeiko, one of the suspects, said in a filmed interrogation that members of the group were to "take the explosives and deliver them to three locations in the cities." After making the demands, they were to "blow them up if the demands are not fulfilled," he said.

Upon release, Asahara would have been taken by boat to one of the small towns around Vladivostok where he would have hidden out in an apartment that the group had rented.

The group caught the FSB's attention when members from Moscow arrived in Vladivostok at the start of the last year. Although they had some explosives and weapons, they decided to buy more, and informers alerted the security agency.

After nearly a half-year of surveillance, agents raided a garage rented by the group and seized a Kalashnikov assault rifle, six grenades, four pistols, more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition and homemade bombs. The bombs had dynamite charges at the core and were filled with nails and screws wrapped with tape.

Two members of the group were to take jobs as sailors on a cargo ship bound for Japan and smuggle the guns and ammunition in punching bags and stereo systems.

The FSB filed charges including illegal possession of arms and illegal manufacture of explosives, but has not reported the length of prison terms the group would face if convicted.

Asahara, whose Aum cult preached that the world was coming to an end, masterminded the Tokyo subway sarin gas attack that killed 12 and made 6000 ill.