Vladivostok, Russia -- A court in the Russian Pacific port city has begun to try four Russian adherents of the Aum Shinrikyo cult accused of plotting to bomb Japanese cities to force authorities to free the cult's leader, Shoko Asahara.
The group planned to issue the demand for Asahara's release just before the Group of Eight summit on Okinawa on July 21-23, 2000, hoping the international spotlight and the threat of bombings would bring a quick response, the prosecution said.
Three group members were arrested on July 1 of that year and one was arrested earlier this year.
Asahara is being tried 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 thousands were sickened.
Seven members of his cult have been convicted of carrying out 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 adherents kept in contact with one another and continued practicing the cult's teachings.
As a Vladivostok judge read the full indictment against the four adherents, 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, prepared by the Russian Federal Security Service, 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 and other weapons including four pistols and an assault rifle 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-cafe in Japan and trigger the bombs if they 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 that 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.
The four suspects caught the attention of security agents after they moved from Moscow to Vladivostok in early 2000 and continued buying weapons and explosives, sparking reports by informers and months of surveillance.
If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison.
The trial continues.