Rape trial of 'Polygamy Prophet' kicks off in USA

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The leader of a fundamentalist Mormon sect, who is believed to have more than 70 wives, yesterday denied being an accessory to rape when he arranged the marriage of an unwilling 14-year-old girl to a man who was already married. The trial of Warren Jeffs, the self-style "prophet" of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Church of Latter Day Saints, is the first concerted effort by officials in Utah and Arizona to crack down on the culture of polygamy and anti-modernist teachings which thrive in a bizarre community on the border between the two states.

Jeffs succeeded his father as the leader of the sect in the twin towns of Hilldale and Colorado City in 2002. He quickly fell foul of the law because of his strict authoritarian rule and his extreme version of the old Mormon belief in polygamy, which was abandoned by the mainstream church as official policy years ago.

He is on trial in St George, Utah – 35 miles from his home – accused of being an accessory to rape. He has also been indicted in Arizona on a further eight charges, including incest and sexual involvement with a minor. If convicted, he faces anywhere from five years to life in prison.

As the long-awaited trial got under way yesterday, his alleged victim – identified in court only as Jane Doe – said she had no option but to obey the will of both her husband and Jeffs. "The prophet was God to us," she said. "He was God on Earth." Jeffs was the only person in the community allowed to perform marriage ceremonies, she said. He also took charge of the religious school, which most children of sect members attended after his father ordered them to drop out of the local state school.

Jeffs allegedly taught his followers that a man needed at least three wives to get to Heaven and that, the more wives he had, the holier he became. His critics, including several dissidents who were thrown out of the community and had their wives and children "reassigned" to other men – claimd he ruled with a rod of iron and tolerated no criticism.

In his opening statement to the jury, prosecution lawyer Brock Belnap said that Jane Doe, now 21, would testify that she begged Jeffs not to make her go through with the marriage. "She will testify that he told her to repent and go back and give herself in mind, body and soul – and she did," Mr Belnap added.

Jeffs' defence lawyer, Tara Isaacson, responded by saying there was no evidence that Jeffs specifically coerced the girl into doing something she did not want. Indeed, she said, Jeffs had taught women they were under no obligation to obey an "unrighteous" spouse. "There is no force in the marriage of celestial marriage," Ms Isaacson said, quoting one of Jeffs' teachings.

Jeffs, a gaunt 51-year-old, sat stony-faced throughout yesterday's hearing and is unlikely to testify in his own defence.

For years, Utah and Arizona prosecutors contemplating the prosecution of polygamy cases have faced two major problems. One is the residual sympathy among mainstream Mormons for polygamous practices – a factor which could yet sway jurors in St George. The other is the difficulty in finding a present or former member of Jeffs' sect willing to testify against him. For many Mormons, the case is as much about religious culture as it is about criminality – whether communities have a right to create their own moral code or if wider society has a right to impose its values. Others see Jeffs as a man who simply lost control.

Three of his nephews have accused him of sexually abusing them as children. He fled Hilldale and Colorado City in 2004 and spent two years on the run before he was arrested in Nevada, driving a car filled with disguises and mobile phones.