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26 Sep 2007 07:09
The leader of a breakaway polygamous sect of Mormons was on Tuesday convicted of abetting in the rape of a 14-year-old girl who was forcibly married off to a cousin.
Warren Jeffs (51) is the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and revered by his followers as God’s prophet.
He was convicted by an eight-member jury in St George, Utah, on two charges of being an accomplice to the rape of the girl, who was one of the followers of his church. She was married despite her objections to a cousin who was 19-years-old.
In testimony, the forced bride, now 21, told the court she had wept in despair as Jeffs presided over her “celestial marriage” at a Nevada hotel.
She had told Jeffs and her mother that she did not want to be married.
She said she had been raised in such isolation that she knew nothing of sex, and had to be coaxed to kiss her husband.
“My entire body was shaking. I was so scared,” she testified. “He just laid me on the bed and had sex.”
Immediately afterward, she retreated into the bathroom and took two bottles of pain reliever. The woman’s husband, Allan Steed, has not been charged with any crime.
The verdict brought a rare spotlight on the continued practice of polygamy by a community of 10 000 which appeared to live under Jeffs’s complete control. The splinter group has been disavowed by the mainstream Mormon church, which renounced polygamy more than a century ago.
Testimony revealed a society that operated like a cult, where Jeffs wielded all power, and routinely assigned young girls to marriages against their will, or ripped families asunder when he believed the unions should come to an end.
In the communities governed by the church, in border areas of Utah, Colorado and Arizona, the word of Jeffs was law. “Everyone should now know that no one is above the law, religion is not an excuse for abuse and every victim has a right to be heard,” Utah’s attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, who had supported Jeffs’s prosecution, told the court.
Lawyers for Jeffs claim that he is a victim of religious persecution.
The verdict arrived after more than 17 hours of deliberation, and only after one juror was replaced by an alternate for reasons that were not disclosed.
It brings to an end Jeffs’s domination of the church he has led since 2002, dictating even the most minor details in the lives of his followers.
The charismatic church leader is also charged in Arizona with being an accomplice to incest. He was captured at a routine traffic stop in Las Vegas after more than 18 months on the run.
But Richard Holm, a former member of the sect, said he did not believe the conviction would have much impact on the sect or polygamy in Utah.
“He will be regarded as a martyr. There is a power base and system in place to carry on,” Holm said.
But Holm was relieved with the guilty verdict. “I think he [Jeffs] saw an opportunity to take glory, credit and power for himself ... In doing so, he abused and hurt a lot of people,” he said. - Guardian Unlimited Â
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