Seven members of a militia that occupied a wildlife refuge in the US state of Orgegon have been cleared of all charges. A 41-day standoff with police, which began in January, ended with one death.
Group leader Ammon Bundy, his brother Ryan and five others were cleared on Thursday of conspiring to prevent federal workers from their jobs when they staged an armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Even attorneys for the defendants were surprised by the jury acquittals, which dealt a stinging defeat to federal prosecutors and conservation groups, one of which said the outcome would likely embolden extremist movements.
Defense attorney Lisa Ludwig called the verdict "stunning" as the group's supporters erupted in cheers, local news media reported.
Bundy and his followers took over the bird sanctuary, located 480 kilometers (300 miles) southeast of Portland on January 2.
Initially they said their occupation was carried out against prison sentences given to two local ranchers convicted of setting fires on public land. But their confrontation with authorities quickly turned into a wider campaign to force authorities to transfer federal land to state or local government control.
The takeover followed a similar confrontation by the Bundy brothers' father Cliven Bundy, who had clashed with federal officials in 2014 over cattle grazing on public land in Nevada. The brothers still face assault and others charges from that standoff.
Threat of jail
The six men and one woman each faced up to six years in prison on the conspiracy charge. Several also faced gun charges during the five-week trial.
The 12-member jury found all seven defendants not guilty of the most serious charge, conspiracy to impede federal officers through intimidation, threats or force.
The defendants also were acquitted of illegal possession of firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property, except in the case of Ryan Bundy, for whom jurors were deadlocked on the charge of theft.
Several weeks into the occupation, the Bundys and several others were arrested when they left the refuge and headed to a community meeting to plead their case. The group's spokesman Robert "LaVoy" Finicum was shot dead by police. A few days later, the four remaining holdouts surrendered.
The case has reignited the debate over government control over millions of acres of public land in western US states, which has been a thorny issue for decades.
Several other people are due to stand trial over charges relating to the occupation in February.
mm/rc (AFP, AP, Reuters)