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Ohio Amish sect leader, followers found guilty of hate crimes in hair attacks

Amy Sancetta / AP file

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

An Amish leader and 15 followers were convicted Thursday in Cleveland of federal hate crimes in connection with the forcible cutting of the hair and beards of religious rivals last fall.

Samuel J. Mullet Sr., a bishop for a group of Amish in Bergholz, Ohio, was convicted on seven of the nine charges against him, according to Reuters. In addition to being convicted of conspiring to violate the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, Mullet was convicted of concealing or attempting to conceal evidence and making false statements to the FBI.

Though Mullet was not present for any of the attacks on nine Amish men and women between September and November last year, prosecutors allege he was the mastermind behind the effort.

The Amish community's women don't cut their hair, and Amish men don't cut their beards after marriage, because they are considered sacred symbols of righteousness, according to Reuters.

All 15 of the 66-year-old's followers were convicted of at least one charge in addition to conspiracy, Reuters reported. They each face a minimum of 210 months in prison; sentencing is scheduled for Jan. 24.

"The violent and offensive actions of these defendants, which were aimed at beliefs and symbols held sacred by this country's Amish citizens, are an affront to religious freedom and tolerance, which are core values protected by our Constitution and our civil rights laws,” said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Prosecutors had argued the defendants were motivated by religious disputes, according to Reuters, while defense attorneys said the attacks were based on family or financial conflicts.

Scott R. Galvin / AP

In this photo, Amish enter the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Cleveland on Thursday. The jury presented its verdict for 16 Amish people accused of hate crimes in hair- and beard-cutting attacks against fellow Amish in Ohio.

Federal officials say the verdicts will send a message about religious intolerance, The Associated Press reported.

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"The victims in this case are members of a peaceful and traditional religion who simply wanted to be left to practice their religion in peace," U.S. Attorney Steven Dettelbach said, according to the AP. "Unfortunately, the defendants denied them this basic right and they did so in the most violent way."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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