(Reuters) - A federal grand jury in Ohio returned a seven-count indictment on Tuesday charging 12 members of an Amish splinter group with hate crimes following a spate of beard cutting attacks on fellow Amish in the state.
The charges related to five separate assaults between September and November. They allege the defendants, 10 men and two women, used scissors and electric clippers to snip hair from the victims, with whom they had religious disputes.
The actions of the group were considered especially egregious because once married, Amish men typically do not trim their beards and Amish women do not cut their hair for religious and cultural reasons.
"For nearly 500 years, people have come to this land so that they could pray however and to whomever they wished," Steven M. Dettelbach, the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, said in a statement.
"Violent attempts to attack this most basic freedom have no place in our country," he added.
Among defendants charged under the Hate Crimes Prevention Act were Bishop Samuel Mullet Sr., his two sons Johnny and Daniel Mullet and son-in-law Emanuel Shrock.
The indictment also charged defendants with each assault, and Bishop Mullet and three others with concealing evidence, including a camera, photographs, and medication that was allegedly placed in the drink of one of the assault victims.
Bishop Mullet was accused of orchestrating the beard-cuttings as revenge for being shunned by the Amish community.
He also was accused of forcing extreme punishments on sect members who defied him, including making them sleep for days at a time in a chicken coop, the FBI said.
Authorities said conversations recorded at the Holmes County jail before federal charges were brought alerted authorities that he was planning more attacks.
The most serious charges in the case could bring a maximum sentence of life in prison for conviction.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Jerry Norton)