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Canadian court quashes polygamy charges
|September 23, 2009|
TORONTO - 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.
The case would have been the first test of Canada's polygamy laws under Canada's constitution. Two Canadian laws stand in contradiction: Polygamy is banned, and religious freedoms are firmly protected.
FLDS members practice polygamy in arranged marriages, a tradition tied to the early theology of the Mormon church. Mormons 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.
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.
British Columbia Premier Gordon Campbell said he found the court ruling disappointing, but will not give up on the government's goal of resolving the issue of polygamy in the western province. Campbell said the government will review the court ruling and may appeal.
British Columbia Attorney General Mike de Jong said it's not the result he hoped for. He said he supported the earlier decision by his predecessor, Wally Oppal, to take the polygamy cases against Oler and Blackmore to court.