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Oregon militants acquitted of conspiracy in wildlife refuge seizure

A federal court jury on Thursday acquitted anti-government militant leader Ammon Bundy and six followers of conspiracy charges stemming from their role in the armed takeover of a U.S. wildlife centre in Oregon earlier this year.

Group staged a 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year

Ammon Bundy, left, and his brother Ryan Bundy were acquitted on Thursday of conspiracy charges stemming from their role in the armed takeover of a U.S. wildlife centre in Oregon. Five others were also acquitted. (MCSO/Reuters)

A federal court jury on Thursday acquitted anti-government militant leader Ammon Bundy and six followers of conspiracy charges stemming from their role in the armed takeover of a U.S. wildlife centre in Oregon earlier this year.

The outcome marked a stinging defeat for federal prosecutors and law enforcement in a trial the defendants sought to turn into a pulpit for airing their opposition to U.S. government control over millions of acres of public lands in the West.

Bundy and others, including his brother and co-defendant Ryan Bundy, cast the 41-day occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as a legitimate and patriotic act of civil disobedience. Prosecutors called it a lawless scheme to seize federal property by force.

Jubilant supporters of the Bundys thronged the courthouse after the verdict, hailing the trial's outcome as vindication of a political ideology that is profoundly distrustful of federal authority and challenges its legitimacy.

"We're so grateful to the jurors who weren't swayed by the nonsense that was going on," defendant Shawna Cox told reporters. "God said we weren't guilty. We weren't guilty of anything."

As the seven-week-long trial in the U.S. District Court in Portland climaxed, U.S. marshals wrestled to the floor Ammon Bundy's lawyer, Marcus Mumford, as he argued heatedly with the judge over the terms of his client's continued detention.

The Bundys still face assault, conspiracy and other charges from a separate armed standoff in 2014 at the Nevada ranch of their father, Cliven Bundy, triggered when federal agents seized his cattle for his failure to pay grazing fees for his use of public land.

Moments earlier, gasps of astonishment rose from the packed courtroom. Attorneys exchanged looks of excitement with the defendants, then hugged their clients as the not-guilty verdicts were read. Family members and supporters of the accused erupted in jubilation.

The outcome of the Oregon trial clearly shocked many in the packed courtroom. Attorneys exchanged looks of astonishment with the defendants, then hugged their clients as the not-guilty verdicts were read amid gasps from spectators.

Outside the courthouse, supporters celebrated by shouting "Hallelujah" and reading from the U.S. Constitution. One man rode his horse, named Lady Liberty, in front of the courthouse carrying an American flag.

The verdict came hours after a newly reconstituted jury, with an alternate seated to replace one panellist dismissed over questions of bias on Wednesday, renewed deliberations in the case. Jurors previously had deliberated over three days.

The 12-member panel found the Bundy brothers and their four co-defendants — three men and a woman — not guilty of the most serious charge, conspiracy to impede federal officers through intimidation, threats or force.

That charge alone carried a maximum penalty of six years in prison.

The defendants also were unanimously acquitted of illegal possession of firearms in a federal facility and of theft of government property, except in the case of Ryan Bundy, for whom jurors deadlocked on the charge of theft.

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      Grievances against federal control

      During the takeover and at trial, the occupiers said they acted out of solidarity with two Oregon ranchers they believed were unfairly treated in an arson case and to protest their larger grievances against federal control over millions of hectares of public lands in the West.

      The standoff led to the shooting death of one protester by police and left parts of the refuge badly damaged.

      While a number of self-styled militia groups had rallied to Bundy's cause, the occupation generated little sympathy from authorities in nearby Harney County. The sheriff called on the group to end its siege peacefully just after three days, telling them, "It's time for you to leave our community."

      As the protest wore on, the occupiers drew ridicule on social media and anonymous deliveries of sex toys, glitter and nail polish at the compound.

      More than two dozen people, in all, have been criminally charged in the Malheur occupation, and a second group of defendants is due to stand trial in February.

      Mumford told reporters he believed Ammon and Ryan Bundy would remain in custody for the time being but may be transferred to Nevada. Four co-defendants were free on their own recognizance during the trial. A fifth, David Fry, the last of the occupiers to surrender in February, was released hours after the verdict.