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Jury deliberations begin in Ohio Amish hair- and beard-cutting trial

Mark Duncan / AP

Two Amish men talk to a security guard outside the United States Courthouse in Cleveland on Wednesday.

Jury deliberations started Thursday in the trial of an Amish leader and 15 followers who are accused of forcibly cutting the hair and beards of religious rivals.

Samuel J. Mullet Sr., a 66-year-old bishop for a group of Amish in Bergholz, Ohio, is accused of leading a group of 15 men and women in carrying out hair- and beard-cutting attacks against nine fellow Amish in Ohio last year. The Amish community's women and married men don't cut their hair and beards, because they are considered sacred symbols of righteousness, according to Reuters.

The 16 face charges of conspiracy, kidnapping, hate crimes and obstruction in U.S. District Court in Cleveland because the crimes were based on the "actual or perceived religion" of the victims, according to an affidavit. Prosecutors argue that they were motivated by religious disputes, Reuters reported.

Amy Sancetta / AP file

In this file photo, Amish bishop Sam Mullet is seen outside his home in Bergholz, Ohio, on Oct. 10, 2011.

Though Mullet was not present during the attacks, prosecutors allege he organized the effort, it said.

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"He is different from everyone else. He didn't get any blood or hair on himself, but none of the terror would have happened without him," Reuters quoted U.S. Attorney Kristy Parker as saying.

Attorneys for the defendants acknowledge the crimes did happen but say it may be going too far to call them hate crimes, the AP reported.

Mullet's attorney, Ed Bryan, characterized the prosecutors' presentation as reading like a movie script.

"This isn't a grand conspiracy," he told Reuters. "They are trying to hold him accountable for crimes he didn't commit."

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In closing arguments Wednesday, a federal prosecutor told the jury that Mullet had waged a "campaign of terror," and the nine victims' beards and hair were sheared "like animals," The Plain Dealer in Cleveland reported

If convicted, the defendants could face up to life in prison, according to Reuters.

NBC News' Kari Huus, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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