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A federal trial pitting seven protesters against the government is set to begin Tuesday, months after brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their fellow activists occupied a desolate Oregon bird sanctuary.
The Bundys, a Nevada ranching family, and the five other defendants are charged with “conspiring to impede Interior Department employees from doing their jobs at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge through intimidation or threats.”
Five of the defendants also face charges of possessing a firearm in a federal facility.
The occupation in the high desert began Jan. 2 to protest the jailing of two Oregon ranchers who were convicted of setting fires. The group, which called itself Citizens for Constitutional Freedom, then pivoted to calls for the government to hand public lands over to locals.
Ammon Bundy gave daily press conferences with reporters and said the group was fighting unconstitutional federal land management policies.
As it dragged on, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown sent a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch and FBI Director James Comey urging them “to end the unlawful occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as safely and as quickly as possible.”
The Bundys were arrested on Jan. 26, during a traffic stop where police fatally shot occupation spokesman Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, 54, effectively ending the protest — but four holdouts stayed on for another 16 days.
According to the defendants, they exercised their First Amendment rights by engaging in peaceful protests. Altogether, 26 people were charged with conspiracy; 11 have pleaded guilty to the charges. Earlier this month, charges were dropped against another defendant. The remaining seven who aren't going on trial Tuesday will have their day in court in February.
Ryan Bundy and Shawna Cox, the only woman among the seven defendants who are about to begin trial, will serve as their own lawyers and are expected to deliver their own opening statements, the Associated Press reported.
The trial is anticipated to last until November. Conspiracy to impede federal employees from doing their duties carries up to six years in prison.