Cleveland, Ohio -
The leader of a breakaway Amish group and 15 followers were convicted of hate crimes in the US state of Ohio on Thursday for a series of beard-cutting attacks against rivals in the community.
Federal prosecutors argued that Samuel Mullet - who considered himself a god above the law - unleashed a band of renegades who waged a “campaign of terror” against nine religious enemies and estranged family members last year.
“The evidence was that they invaded their homes, physically attacked these people and sheared them almost like animals,” said US Attorney Steven Dettelbach.
“Our community and our nation must have zero tolerance for this type of religious intolerance.”
The five separate raids were mainly carried out at night, with the victims forced out of bed, their beards and hair chopped off with horse mane shears and battery-powered clippers, and the roughshod barber work documented with embarrassing snapshots on a disposable camera.
Beards and long hair are sacred symbols of an Amish follower's devotion to God, and to cut them is humiliating.
Defense lawyers argued that the beard-cutting forays never reached the level of a hate crime - for conviction, a religious motive and bodily injury, including disfigurement, must be proven.
They argued that love and compassion drove the hair-cutting conflicts, which were intended to compel the victims to return to a conservative Amish lifestyle.
Mullet's sister, Barbara Miller, was among the victims of the hair-cutting attacks. She covered her face with her jacket as the judge read the verdict and declined to comment to reporters outside the courthouse.
“It's sad, sure,” said Mullet's brother John, who lives apart from the Mullet compound, and accompanied his sister Barbara to court nearly every day of the three-week trial.
Mullet's lawyer said he was shocked by the verdicts and vowed to appeal.
“There was very little, in fact no evidence connecting Sam Mullet to any of these matters,” said defense attorney Edward Bryan.
“The government was successful in convincing the jury that he had a Svengali-like influence over these people.”
Mullet, 66, was the religious and social leader of a breakaway settlement of 18 families in Bergholz, a pastoral farming community of rolling hills and valleys located about 160 kilometres from Cleveland.
The father of 18 children, and a multi-millionaire, Mullet was charged with ordering the beard-cutting attacks, but not accused of participating in them.
Among those convicted of conspiracy and federal hate crime charges were three of Mullet's sons.
Prosecutors said that since the crimes were violent and involved kidnapping, the minimum sentence was 17 years behind bars. Sentencing was set for January 24, 2013, the US Justice Department said in a statement.
Defense attorneys said they hope their clients could get as little as time already served in county jails since the judge has discretion in determining the sentence.
The case attracted widespread media attention, providing a curious public a rare window into the historically reclusive and peaceful Amish society.
For three weeks, the staid courthouse acquired the atmosphere of an Amish communal dining hall, with 16 bearded men and bonneted women seated alongside 16 separate defense lawyers at five tables spread across half of the courtroom.
The gallery was typically filled with Amish observers gathered for the spectacle - the men clad in denim and suspenders, the women in aprons and dresses. Supporters of the prosecution sat on one side of the aisle, supporters of the Bergholz clan on the other.
Witnesses portrayed Mullet as a fire-and-brimstone preacher and iron-fisted autocrat who imposed strict, and often bizarre discipline on his flock of 18 families. Several labelled the group a cult.
Mullet read and censored all incoming and outgoing mail, punished wrongdoers with spanking and confinement in chicken coops, and had sex with several of the young married women under the guise of marital counselling and absolution. - Sapa-AFP