Court orders foot cult, guru to pay 227 mil. yen for fraud

FUKUOKA, Feb. 20 (Kyodo) - The Fukuoka High Court on Tuesday ordered the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo cult and former leader Hogen Fukunaga to pay about 227.2 million yen in damages for swindling money out of 27 believers in the name of training fees.

Upholding a lower court ruling, presiding Judge Takao Kondo said the fees were illegal as the cult went beyond what society deems acceptable as religious activity.

''It was obvious that the religious group intended to collect money,'' Kondo said.

The plaintiffs demanded the sect, which professed the power to diagnose people's woes by examining the soles of their feet, pay 237 million yen in damages.

Kondo, however, told the court that he would not go as far to say that all Ho-no-Hana members recognized they were doing something illegal when they were recruiting people to become Ho-no-Hana followers.

''Each person has different views on donation (to religious groups). It could be a legitimate religious activity, depending on circumstances,'' he said.

Fukunaga, 55, and senior cultists deceived the plaintiffs by claiming payments of millions of yen would cure illnesses such as cancer, the ruling said.

They defrauded the plaintiffs out of 1.2 million yen to 35.69 million yen each between 1989 and 1997 by telling them to undergo expensive training sessions and selling them bogus curative goods such as hanging scrolls, it said.

The plaintiffs include housewives and workers from seven prefectures who contacted Ho-no-Hana, based in Fuji, Shizuoka Prefecture, after reading books by Fukunaga, who founded it around 1980.

AP-NY-02-20-01 0441EST

Copyright 2001 The Kyodo News Service.