Canadian court quashes polygamy charges

Canadian court quashes polygamy charges

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TORONTO (AP) -- A judge has quashed polygamy charges against two leaders of a polygamous community in western Canada.

The judge said Wednesday the province's attorney general did not have the authority to appoint a second special prosecutor to consider the cases of Winston Blackmore and James Oler after the first special prosecutor recommended against charging the two men.

Authorities arrested Blackmore and Oler, who lead rival polygamous factions in Bountiful, a town in southeastern British Columbia, in January. Blackmore was charged with marrying 20 women and Oler was accused of marrying two women.

Blackmore, long known as "the Bishop of Bountiful," runs an independent sect of about 400 members in the town of Bountiful. He once ran the Canadian arm of the Utah-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, but was ejected in 2003 by that group's leader, Warren Jeffs.

Oler is the bishop of Bountiful's FLDS community loyal to Jeffs. Even though many of the town's residents are related or have same last name, followers of the two leaders are splintered and are not allowed to talk with each other.

British Columbia Supreme Court Judge Sunni Stromberg-Stein said the appointment of the second special prosecutor -- and therefore the decision to charge the men -- was "unlawful."

The men had petitioned the court to drop the charges, arguing that the attorney general had gone "special prosecutor shopping" until he found someone who would go ahead with charges.

"I am thrilled," Blackmore said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "It has been a long and hard year so far. It's been very stressful for my family and stressful for me."

Blackmore said the whole issue was resolved in 1992 when a special prosecutor decided not to proceed with charges.

"The shopping of a special prosecutor is certainly not a made-up concept," Blackmore said.

Blackmore said his polygamous community should be protected by religious freedom under Canada's constitution.

"Canada is a great multicultural country. It's wonderful in every way for every culture. I'm glad to be included in that," Blackmore said.

FLDS members practice polygamy in arranged marriages, a tradition tied to the early theology of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Church renounced polygamy in 1890 as a condition of Utah's statehood.

Last year, British Columbia's former attorney general appointed a special prosecutor to look into allegations of criminal abuse at Bountiful despite two earlier legal opinions that said it would be difficult to proceed with criminal charges for polygamy itself.

Blackmore openly acknowledges having numerous wives and dozens of children but has said his community abhors sexual abuse of children. The charges would have carried a maximum penalty of five years in prison in a case that would have been the first test of Canada's polygamy laws.

But two Canadian laws stand in contradiction: Polygamy is banned, and religious freedoms are firmly protected.

Bruce Elwood, who represented Blackmore and Oler at the hearing, said the judge quashed the appointment of the special prosecutor, which quashes the charges. But it's not the same as throwing out the charges.

He said he thinks "this will be the end of the criminal case" but he's not sure whether the charges could be resurrected.

Last year, Texas authorities raided an FLDS ranch and put more than 400 children into foster care. The children were returned to their parents after the Texas Supreme Court ruled the state overstepped in removing all the children when it only had evidence of abuse or neglect involving about a half-dozen teenage girls.

The FLDS, with an estimated 10,000 members, is headquartered in Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah. In 1947, a small group moved just across the border into Lister, British Columbia. The newcomers dubbed the pristine spot at the base of a snowy mountain range Bountiful.

Besides an estimated 1,000 Canadians living in Bountiful, the U.S. Embassy estimates there are about 300 Americans there who are loyal to Blackmore and 200 others who follow Jeffs, who is in an Arizona jail awaiting trial on charges related to alleged underage marriages involving sect girls.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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