By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - Jury selection is set to begin Monday in the hate crime trial of 16 members of an Ohio Amish splinter group charged in connection with a spate of beard- and hair-cutting attacks on other Amish people last fall.
The 16 men and women, most of them related, are charged in three separate attacks on nine people, including the parents of some of the suspects. The series of crimes rocked the normally quiet, pacifist Amish community in southeast Ohio.
The assaults were considered especially egregious because the beard is a symbol of a man's identity among the Amish, and women in the community do not cut their hair for biblical reasons.
The trial is to be held in U.S. District Court in Cleveland.
Federal prosecutors say the attacks were revenge for a dispute between Samuel Mullet Sr. and other Amish bishops after those bishops disputed the ex-communication of eight families from Mullet's breakaway group.
Authorities accused Mullet, 66, of being the ringleader of the assaults, although they say he was not present during any of them. Authorities said conversations recorded in jail before federal charges were brought revealed that he was planning more attacks.
Mullet and the others face 10 counts, including obstruction, conspiracy and a federal hate crime, "for willfully causing bodily injury because of actual and perceived religion."
Two defendants, Mullet and Lester Miller, have filed motions arguing that the hate crime statute, which carries a possible life sentence, does not apply to intra-religious disputes and is a violation of the separation of powers.
Seven defendants, including Mullet, have been in custody since their arrest in October.
Last week, Judge Dan Polster ruled that prosecutors are not permitted to refer to Mullet's community using terms that may be derogatory, like "cult" or "sect," but they will be able to present evidence of Mullet's sexual "counseling" of female members of his group even though he has not been charged with a sex crime.
Another earlier ruling allows the defense to argue that the cutting of a person's hair or beard does not constitute bodily harm even though the Amish believe married men and women must abstain from cutting their hair.
Members of the Amish community will not be required to be sworn in before testifying because oath-taking is considered a violation of their religion.
The judge has banned cameras and blogging from the courtroom during the trial.
(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Philip Barbara)
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