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Hogen Fukunaga, founder of the Honohana Sanpogyo foot-reading cult, denied in his first trial hearing Thursday that he conspired with other members of the sect to defraud 31 people out of about 149 million yen.

Fukunaga, 55, told the Tokyo District Court that he has been engaged in religious activities, which he described as authentic, for 20 years. He said this would have been impossible had he committed fraud.

“I have never heard a voice from heaven that instructed me to swindle somebody,” he said. “Therefore, I have never told anybody to swindle somebody else.”

In their opening statement, prosecutors said Fukunaga and his cohorts conspired between 1994 and 1997 to cheat 31 people out of about 149 million yen by telling them their health or family problems would worsen unless they attended the cult’s seminars, which cost 2.25 million yen per person.

In some cases, the accused demanded more than 10 million yen, claiming their targets’ problems were very serious, they said.

Fukunaga and the other defendants convinced the victims that they could predict ominous events by reading the soles of their feet, the prosecutors said.

They said Fukunaga told the victims to resolve their problems by attending the seminars or donating to the cult, as instructed by a “voice from heaven” only he could hear.

During the hearing, Fukunaga’s lawyer said Honohana’s activity did not constitute fraud because the organization is purely religious and its freedom to engage in religious activity is guaranteed by the Constitution.

Nine others charged in the case also appeared at the hearing. Four of them, including the cult’s No. 2 man, Yasunori Hoshiyama, whose real name is Yasunori Lee, admitted the fraud charges in court but claimed they fully believed Fukunaga had religious power at the time.

The five others denied guilt and claimed their actions stemmed from their religious beliefs.

Five other Honohana members also accused of fraud are standing trial separately.

On Tuesday, the court is slated to hand down a ruling against Michiko Ichinose, 37, former head of the cult’s Urawa branch in Saitama Prefecture. Ichinose stands accused of defrauding followers out of about 4 million yen, and prosecutors are demanding she be given a two-year prison term.

The other four will have their first trial hearings on Oct. 23.

Fukunaga, whose real name is Teruyoshi Fukunaga, started preaching religion in 1980. He claims to be the world’s final savior.

The cult, which once claimed to have 30,000 followers, collected 95 billion yen between 1987 and 1999, of which 85 billion yen was taken directly from cult followers as donations or fees for goods and seminars, police said.

The rest of the money came from the cult’s affiliated companies.

The cult used 30 billion yen to purchase real estate and construct cult facilities and 20 billion yen for religious activities and personnel fees.

Fukunaga and his wife are believed to have used more than 1.8 billion yen for personal expenses.

During police questioning, Fukunaga admitted that he swindled money from his followers by telling them he could cure illnesses, despite knowing he has no such power.

He also apologized to the victims and said he wished to repay them, the investigators said.

About 1,200 people have filed lawsuits against the cult at eight district courts across the country, demanding it repay more than 5.8 billion yen.

In April, the Fukuoka District Court ordered the cult to pay 227 million yen in damages to former followers.

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