By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - A prosecutor in the Ohio trial of Amish sect leader and 15 others told jurors on Tuesday that the group have been charged for forcibly cutting the hair of victims - not for their religious beliefs.
The 16 Amish are all charged with a federal hate crime for forcibly cutting the hair and beards of nine men and women in attacks last fall. Some of the victims are the parents of those accused.
Amish women do not cut their hair and Amish men do not cut their beards after marriage for biblical reasons.
"In the Amish faith a man's beard and a women's hair are sacred religious symbols," Bridget M. Brennan, an assistant U.S. attorney, said in her opening statement. "The beard and the hair are symbols of Amish righteousness, religious symbols that God is present in their lives."
Prosecutors said the defendants are on trial for terrorizing and injuring their victims. "They are not on trial for beliefs ... they are on trial for their acts," Brennan said.
Brennan told jurors that Amish leader Samuel Mullet Sr., who is one of the defendants, was not present at any of the attacks but he preached to his followers that the victims deserved punishment for disagreeing with him in the past.
"Samuel Mullet was the beginning and the end of these attacks," Brennan said.
Defense attorneys said the attacks were merely family disputes or inter-religious disagreements on how to live a righteous Amish life.
The Amish are known for their plain dress, simple living and shunning of technology.
Dean Carro, attorney for defendant Lester Miller, told jurors that at one time his client cut off his own beard and voluntarily slept in a chicken coop in order to right himself with his Amish religion. Carro also said Miller believed his parents, two of the victims, had strayed from the Amish path.
"He thought his parents had forgotten the rules," Carro told jurors. "He was trying to bring them back to the fold."
Brennan told the jury to expect some of the victims and even family members of the accused Amish group to testify against them. "To say they don't want to testify is an understatement," she said.
The 10 male defendants wore long beards, light blue shirts and suspenders in court, and the six women defendants were in long dark skirts and white bonnets.
(Reporting By Kim Palmer; Editing by Mary Wisniewski)