CLEVELAND, Feb. 8 (UPI) -- An Amish bishop and 15 followers convicted of hate crimes for cutting rivals' beards and head hair were sentenced to federal prison Friday in Ohio.
Samuel Mullet Sr., the group's 67-year-old leader who received the stiffest sentence at 15 years, and his co-defendants were convicted in September of conspiracy to violate a federal hate-crime law. Mullet was found guilty of orchestrating the forcible cutting of nine men's beards and hair in 2011.
Mullet followers Johnny S. Mullet, 39; Lester Mullet, 28; Levi F. Miller, 54; and Eli M. Miller, 33, were sentenced to seven years in prison. Three of the senior Mullet's followers were sentenced to five years, two were given two-year sentences and six were sentenced to a year and a day, the Justice Department said.
Prosecutors said the victims had left Mullet's group because of religious differences.
A beard is a symbol of faith and manhood, and Amish women express their faith through the way they wear their hair.
"The Department of Justice and the Civil Rights Division will vigorously defend every American's right to worship in the manner of their choosing, including the members of the defendants' community," said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division. "However, violent assaults are not a form of religious expression. The actions of the defendants were designed to terrorize the victims, desecrate sacred symbols of their faith, and interfere with their right to worship."
U.S. District Judge Dan Aaron Polster told the defendants their offenses went beyond physical injury or mental anguish, The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported.
"Each and every one of you did more than terrorize, traumatize and disfigure the victims," the judge said. "You trampled on the Constitution."
The group lives 100 miles southeast of Cleveland in an area that has become an Amish center. The Amish, descendants of Germans who came to Pennsylvania in the 18th century to escape religious persecution, generally live without electricity, cars and other modern technology.
Mullet's group believed other Amish were not sticking strictly enough to traditional practices.
While Mullet did not carry out the attacks, he was convicted of orchestrating them. At Friday's hearing, he took sole responsibility, urging Polster to spare his followers.
"I'm an old man and not long for this world," he said. "If somebody needs to be blamed for this, and I'm a cult leader, I'm willing to take the blame for everybody."