12 indicted in forcible beard- and hair-cuttings of Ohio Amish

USA - Twelve members of a breakaway Amish sect were indicted on federal charges for allegedly shaving the beards and cutting the hair of Amish community members, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

A federal grand jury in Cleveland returned a seven-count indictment charging 10 men and two women with conspiracy to violate the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act. They were also charged with obstruction of justice in the five incidents, which prosecutors said occurred between September and November.

Various groups of defendants were charged with each separate assault, and four men were charged with concealing or attempting to conceal various items of evidence, the Justice Department said in a news release.

Among the defendants is sect leader Samuel Mullet Sr., bishop of the Amish community in Bergholz, Ohio. The others indicted are all members of the sect, the Justice Department said.

The manner in which Amish men wear their beards and Amish women wear their hair are symbols of their faith, authorities said.

Mullet "exerted control over the Bergholz community by taking the wives of other men into his home, and by overseeing various means of disciplining community members, including corporal punishment," prosecutors said. As a result of religious disputes with other Ohio Amish, the assaults "on their perceived religious enemies" were planned and carried out.

The assaults involved the use of hired drivers, as the Amish do not operate motorized vehicles, the statement said.

"The assaults all entailed using scissors and battery-powered clippers to forcibly cut or shave the beard hair of the male victims and the head hair of the female victims," authorities said. "During each assault, the defendants restrained and held down the victims."

During some of the incidents, those who attempted to intervene and protect or rescue the victims were injured, the statement said. Afterward, some of the defendants allegedly discussed "concealing photographs and other evidence of the assaults."

Mullet, Lester Mullet, Levi Miller and Lester Miller are accused of concealing or attempting to conceal evidence including a camera, photographs "and an over-the-counter medication that was allegedly placed in the drink of one of the assault victims," the Justice Department said.

"Every American has the right to worship in the manner of his or her choosing without fear of violent interference," said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.

The maximum penalty for the conspiracy count is five years in prison upon conviction, authorities said. The hate crimes charges would be punishable by a maximum of life in prison, while the maximum penalty for an obstruction conviction would be 20 years in prison.

An FBI affidavit in the case says that Mullet in some cases forced members "to sleep for days at a time in a chicken coop" and beat those who appeared to disobey him.

Mullet had been "counseling" married women in the sect, "taking them into his home so that he may cleanse them of the devil with acts of sexual intimacy," the sworn statement from an FBI agent says.

Seven men were arrested last month as part of a raid on Mullet's 800-acre compound, authorities said.

When CNN asked Mullet in October whether he was behind the beard-cutting incidents, he asked, "Beard-cutting is a crime, is it?" He denied allegations that he was running a cult.

Asked about what was, at the time, the start of a federal investigation, Mullet said, "We're not guilty, so we have nothing to hide. If they want to come and check us out, we'd be glad to see them here."