The founder of the now-defunct Honohana Sampogyo foot-reading cult was sentenced Friday to 12 years in prison for bilking his flock out of 150 million yen in the name of religious training.

The Tokyo District Court convicted Hogen Fukunaga, 60, of fraud, concluding he deceived his followers into paying “fees for training” that would cure them of diseases.

Presiding Judge Tsutomu Aoyagi accused the ex-cult leader, whose real name is Teruyoshi Fukunaga, of exploiting people’s fears of diseases and other troubles by claiming he could read their past and future by examining the soles of their feet.

“He used shocking words to fuel their concern, falsely claimed their diseases can be cured through training in his cult, and swindled exorbitant amounts of money from them,” the judge said as he denounced Fukunaga’s acts as a vicious crime.

Fukunaga had pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors had demanded 13 years in prison.

Akemi Maezawa, 41, a former staff member of the cult accused of complicity in the fraud, was also sentenced Friday, to four years in prison.

The court said Fukunaga colluded with other members of the cult to perform what they called a “foot-reading diagnosis” on 31 people who visited the cult’s facilities between 1994 and 1997 for advice on their diseases and other troubles.

Fukunaga falsely explained to them that their cancer had “spread to the head” and claimed that they would be cured through training at the cult.

Altogether, those people coughed up about 150 million yen in “training fees.”

During the trial, Fukunaga insisted he “never deceived people, but only rescued the human race with the help of the voice of heaven.”

But Judge Aoyagi reckoned that Fukunaga himself “realized more than anybody that he never had the power to listen to the ‘voice of heaven’ or wield what he claimed as ‘the cosmic energy.’ “

Fukunaga’s defense team argued that ruling on the legitimacy of the cult’s teachings would infringe on its constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.

But the judge ruled that the acts of Fukunaga and his cohorts were “nothing but fraud” and deviated from the range of things that could be condoned in the name of freedom of religion.

“(Fukunaga) wielded power as the leader of the cult and promoted systematic fraud. He is the mastermind of the crimes,” the judge said.

Fukunaga started preaching in 1980, claiming to be the world’s final savior following Jesus Christ and Buddha.

The Honohana cult, recognized as a religious organization by the Shizuoka Prefectural Government in 1987, once claimed to have about 30,000 members and is estimated to have collected more than 90 billion yen in the so-called training fees from the followers.

Victims of its fraudulent practices formed a nationwide organization in 1996 and starting filing lawsuits to get their money back.

Police raided the cult’s facilities in 2000 and arrested Fukunaga and 23 others later in the year.

The cult went bankrupt in 2001 and was effectively dissolved.

Fifteen members of the cult, including Fukunaga, have been accused of fraud and 13 have already been convicted.

Two of them are appealing.

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