Oregon protesters face new charges over occupation of refuge

Occupier Duane Ehmer rides his horse Hellboy at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, on January 7, 2016. REUTERS / Jim Urquhart

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) – Participants in a six-week armed occupation at a U.S. wildlife refuge in Oregon have been indicted on additional charges, including the carrying of firearms in federal facilities and damaging government property.

The indictment, returned by a federal grand jury on Tuesday and unsealed on Wednesday as the anti-government protesters appeared in federal court in Portland, superseded an earlier indictment in the case.

It added charges against protest leader Ammon Bundy and other sympathizers indicted last month for conspiring to impede federal officers policing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge during a long-simmering dispute over land rights.

The occupation, which began on Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was sparked by the return to prison of two Oregon ranchers convicted of setting fires that spread to federal property in the vicinity of the refuge.

It also marked the latest flare-up in the so-called Sagebrush Rebellion, a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres in the West.

On Tuesday, a county prosecutor said protester Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, who was fatally shot by Oregon State Police in late January during a traffic stop, was struck three times in the back during the incident. The prosecutor deemed the killing “justified and necessary.”

The superseding indictment lists 26 defendants. Each is charged with the initial count of conspiring to impede federal agents. It newly accuses Bundy, his brother Ryan, and some of the other protesters of possession of firearms and dangerous weapons in federal facilities, and the use and carrying of a firearm in relation to a crime of violence.

“We anticipated new charges and we’re glad to see they added them to the indictment sooner rather than later,” said Mike Arnold, a lawyer for Ammon Bundy. “We look forward to the jury trial.”

Another charge, depredation of government property, was leveled against Sean Anderson and another sympathizer, whose name has been redacted from court documents. It alleges the pair damaged an archeological site considered sacred to the Burns Paiute Tribe through the use of excavation and heavy equipment.

The FBI has said it was working with the tribe to identify damage to its artifacts and sacred burial grounds during the 41-day occupation.

Three occupiers were also indicted on charges of theft of government property – Kenneth Medenbach for allegedly stealing a 2012 Ford F-350 Truck, and Ryan Bundy and Jon Ritzheimer for allegedly stealing cameras and related equipment.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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