THE leader of an Amish breakaway group in Ohio has been found guilty of hate crimes by orchestrating beard- and hair-cutting attacks against members of his own faith in a dispute over religious differences.
A jury in Cleveland last night convicted Samuel Mullet Snr of planning the attacks in eastern Ohio last autumn.
Mullet and members of his family are among 16 people who have been accused in a Cleveland federal trial of targeting the hair of their victims because it carries spiritual significance in their faith.
Mullet faces a prison term of 10 years or more.
Defence lawyers had conceded the hair cuttings took place but argued that the prosecutor was overreaching by calling what happened hate crimes. They said the cuttings were merely personal family disputes.
Mullet was not accused of cutting anyone's hair. But prosecutors said he planned and encouraged his four sons and the others, mocked the victims in phone calls and was given a paper bag stuffed with the hair of one victim.
One bishop told jurors his chest-length beard was chopped to within 1.5in of his chin when four or five men dragged him out of his farmhouse late one night.
Prosecutors told jurors that Mullet thought he was above the law and free to discipline those who went against him based on his religious beliefs. Before his arrest last November, he defended what he believes is his right to punish people who break church laws.
"You have your laws on the road and the town -- if somebody doesn't obey them, you punish them. But I'm not allowed to punish the church people?" Mullet told reporters last October.
The hair-cuttings, he said, were a response to continuous criticism he had received from other Amish religious leaders about him being too strict, including shunning people in his own group.
The charges against Mullet and the others included conspiracy, evidence tampering and obstruction of justice.
All the victims, prosecutors said, were people who had a dispute with Mullet over his religious practices and his authoritarian rule.
Witnesses said Mullet had complete control over the settlement he founded two decades ago.
One woman described how he took part in the sexual "counselling" of married women and others said he encouraged men to sleep in chicken coops as punishment.
One Amish woman told the court how her own sons and a daughter who lived in Mullet's community cut her hair and her husband's beard in a surprise assault.