An Amish bishop and 15 followers were convicted in the US state of Ohio of hate crime charges Thursday for a series of beard-cutting attacks against those they deemed had strayed from the faith.
Federal prosecutors argued that Samuel Mullet - who considered himself a god and above the law - unleashed a band of renegades who waged a "campaign of terror" against nine religious enemies and estranged family members last year.
"The evidence was that they invaded their homes, physically attacked these people and sheared them almost like animals," said US Attorney Steven Dettelbach.
"Our community and our nation must have zero tolerance for this type of religious intolerance."
The four separate raids were mainly carried out at night, with the victims forced out of bed, their beards and hair chopped off with horse mane shears and battery-powered clippers, and the roughshod barber work documented with embarrassing snapshots on a disposable camera.
Beards and long hair are sacred symbols of an Amish follower's devotion to God, and to cut them is humiliating.
Defence lawyers argued that the beard-cutting forays never reached the level of a hate crime - for conviction, a religious motive and bodily injury, including disfigurement, must be proven.
They argued that love and compassion drove the hair-cutting conflicts, which were intended to compel the victims to return to a conservative Amish lifestyle.
Mullet, 66, was the religious and social leader of a breakaway settlement of 18 families in Bergholz, a pastoral farming community of rolling hills and valleys located about 100 miles (160 kilometers) from Cleveland.
The father of 18 children, and a multi-millionaire, Mullet was charged with ordering the beard-cutting attacks, but not accused of participating in them.
Among those convicted of conspiracy and federal hate crime charges - which carry a minimum of 17 years behind bars - were three of Mullet's sons.
Mullet's lawyer said he was shocked by the verdicts.
"There was very little, in fact no evidence connecting Sam Mullet to any of these matters," said defence attorney Edward Bryan.
"The government was successful in convincing the jury that he had a Svengali-like influence over these people."
The case attracted widespread media attention, providing a curious public a rare window into the historically reclusive and peaceful Amish society.
For three weeks, the staid courthouse acquired the atmosphere of an Amish communal dining hall, with 16 bearded men and bonneted women seated alongside 16 separate defence lawyers at five tables spread across half of the courtroom.
The gallery was typically filled with Amish observers gathered for the spectacle - the men clad in denim and suspenders, the women in aprons and dresses. Supporters of the prosecution sat on one side of the aisle, supporters of the Bergholz clan on the other.
Witnesses portrayed Mullet as a fire-and-brimstone preacher and iron-fisted autocrat who imposed strict, and often bizarre discipline on his flock of 18 families. Several labeled the group a cult.
Mullet read and censored all ingoing and outgoing mail, punished wrongdoers with spanking and confinement in chicken coops, and had sex with several of the young married women under the guise of marital counseling and absolution.