By Kim Palmer
CLEVELAND (Reuters) - The Ohio trial of an Amish sect leader and 15 of his followers who face federal hate crime charges from forcibly cutting the beards and hair of nine people, some of whom were their parents, got underway on Tuesday.
"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."
Amish women do not cut their hair and the men do not cut their beards after marriage.
Prosecutors said the accused 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 accused, was not present at any of the attacks but he preached to his followers that the victims deserved punishment for disagreeing with him.
"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.
Ed Bryan, attorney for Samuel Mullet Sr., called his client an "Amish gentleman farmer" and said that no witness from his community will come to court and say that Mullet made them carry out any of the attacks.
"This is a domestic violence matter," Bryan told jurors.
Dean Carro, attorney for one of the accused, 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."
The 10 Amish men accused in the case wore long beards, light blue shirts and suspenders in court, and the six women were in long dark skirts and white bonnets.
Prosecutors are expected to call their first witness on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Kim Palmer; Editing by Mary Wisniewski, Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)