(CNN) -- A leader of a breakaway Amish community in rural eastern Ohio was sentenced Friday to 15 years in prison for forcibly cutting the beards and hair of community members.
Samuel Mullet Sr., 67, and 15 followers were found guilty last year in connection with what authorities said were the religiously motivated attacks on several fellow Amish people. Mullet and others were convicted of conspiracy to violate a federal hate-crime law.
Prosecutors said the followers, at Mullet's instruction, shaved the beards and cut the hair of Amish people who had left his group over various religious disagreements.
Five attacks happened in four eastern Ohio counties between September and November 2011.
Four of the followers were sentenced to seven years in prison, three were handed five-year sentences, two were sentenced to two years and six were sentenced to a year and a day, according to the Justice Department.
To the Amish, a beard is a significant symbol of faith and manhood, and the way Amish women wear their hair also is a symbol of faith.
"Our nation was founded on the bedrock principle that everyone is free to worship how they see fit. Violent attempts to attack this most basic freedom have no place in our country," said Steven M. Dettelbach, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Ohio.
Mullet, bishop of a group living on a compound outside Bergholz, wanted to "seek revenge and punish the departing families," according to an FBI affidavit filed before the trial. The attackers, using scissors and battery-powered clippers, injured others who tried to stop the attacks.
Usually, the Amish resolve disputes without involving law enforcement, but some Amish members reported the beard-cutting incidents to police.