21 Sep 2012

Amish sect convicted of hate crimes

11:03 pm on 21 September 2012

Sixteen members of a breakaway group from the Amish community in the United States have been convicted of hate crimes for a series of attacks in which they forcibly cut the beards and hair off fellow Amish.

The group's leader, Samuel Mullet, ordered the assaults as punishment for questioning his authority.

Federal prosecutors argued Mullet - who considered himself a god and 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," US Attorney Steven Dettelbach said on Thursday.

The four 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, AFP reports.

The attacks were recorded 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.

Defence lawyers argued that the acts never reached the level of a hate crime - for conviction, a religious motive and bodily injury, including disfigurement, must be proven.

They argued love and compassion drove the acts, which were intended to compel the victims to return to a conservative Amish lifestyle.

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 about 160 kilometres from Cleveland.

The father of 18 children, and a multimillionaire, 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 - which carry a minimum of 17 years behind bars - were three of Mullet's sons, reports AFP.

Mullet's lawyer says he was shocked by the verdicts as there was very little, in fact no evidence connecting Sam Mullet to any of these matters.

The case attracted widespread media attention, providing a curious public a rare window into the historically reclusive and peaceful Amish society.