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Witnesses forced to give evidence in Russian doomsday prophet case

PENZA, July 22 (RIA Novosti) - Witnesses in the case of Russian doomsday sect leader Pyotr Kuznetsov, whose followers recently spent six months underground, have been forced to testify in court, a Penza Region judicial spokesman said on Tuesday.

"The court decided to call and bring to the session on Tuesday those witnesses who had earlier failed to turn up without good reason," Natalya Bichenkova said.

Some 39 witnesses were called by the court, eleven of whom had submitted applications for the case to be considered without their participation.

Thirty-five members of the sect went underground in the central Russia's Penza Region in November to wait for the apocalypse, 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. The sect pledged to commit mass suicide if any attempt was made to force them to come to the surface.

Although Kuznetsov 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.

Kuznetsov did not join his fellow sect members underground, speaking of "another calling in life."

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.

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.

Kuznetsov attended the first court session, held in the psychiatric asylum where he has been kept since last year, but was subsequently judged too ill by doctors to take any further part in proceedings.

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