Tokyo - A court ruled Monday that a cult led by a guru who claimed to see people's future by examining their feet had swindled followers and ordered it to pay more than $1 million in damages.
The Tokyo District Court ordered the Ho-no-Hana Sampogyo cult to pay $1.33 million to a group of 31 former members, said a court official who declined to be named.
It was the fourth time a Japanese court has found the neo-Buddhist sect and its charismatic founder, 55-year-old Hogen Fukunaga, liable for defrauding followers. Ho-no-Hana allegedly told people they would get cancer and other fatal diseases unless they took part in high-priced "training sessions."
The 31 plaintiffs said that they paid a total of $1.15 million to participate in various cult events between 1992 and 1996.
Judge Koichi Tsukuda was quoted Monday by public television broadcaster NHK as saying that Ho-no-Hana's activities were "clearly illegal" and "departed from social norms."
A lawyer for the plantiffs told The Associated Press that the cult targeted "people whose worries made them vulnerable."
"They were lied to and intimidated," said Hidenori Kamai.
Ho-no-Hana, which means "teaching of the flower," was founded by Fukunaga in 1987. He claimed to have healing powers and to be able to see people's past and future by examining the soles of their feet. He once boasted 30,000 followers around Japan.
Known for his expensive suits and silver pompadour, Fukunaga resigned as the leader of Ho-no-Hana in January following a series of raids on cult facilities and media revelations about his opulent lifestyle.
He is now on trial facing charges of criminal fraud.
Japanese police have been cracking down on fringe religious groups since late last year, when a senior member of a doomsday cult involved in the 1995 nerve gas attack on Tokyo's subways was released from prison.
More than 1,200 people across Japan have filed suits against Ho-no-Hana, seeking a total of $57.6 million in damages. Three courts outside Tokyo have already ordered the cult to pay compensation to the victims.
The damages awarded Monday were the second largest to date, following $2.01 million that a court in southwestern Japan ordered the group to pay 27 ex-followers in April, Kamai said.
Ho-no-Hana spokesman Toru Mafune said he could not comment on Monday's ruling because he had not read it.