Armed occupation leader defends takeover in U.S. federal court

October 5, 2016 10:02 PM EDT

Ammon Bundy leads a discussion about individual rights at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 7, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

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By Jaime Hamre

PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Rancher Ammon Bundy, who led armed anti-government militants in seizing a U.S. wildlife center earlier this year, told a federal court jury on Wednesday they acted to protest federal control of public lands and to rally local authorities to their cause.

Bundy took the witness stand for a second day of testimony in his own defense in U.S. District Court in Portland, where he and six co-defendants are standing trial for their role in the 41-day takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon.

"We knew we had to stay (at the refuge) until we got their attention," Bundy, 41, said, adding he and his group believed they were justified in forcibly occupying the refuge under a doctrine of property law known as "adverse possession," a form of squatter's rights.

His group had hoped to prod local officials to intervene and ultimately assume ownership of the refuge, Bundy said.

While a number of self-styled militia groups rallied to support Bundy, the occupation generated little sympathy from authorities in nearby Harney County. The sheriff called on the group to end its siege peacefully after just three days, telling them: "It's time for you to leave our community."

As their protest wore on, the occupiers drew ridicule on social media and anonymous deliveries of sex toys, glitter and nail polish to the compound.

As he insisted at the time, Bundy testified he was motivated by the plight of two Oregon ranchers - Dwight Hammond Jr. and his son Steven - who were ordered back to prison to complete unfinished sentences for setting fires that had spread to federal property.

But Bundy said the Malheur takeover also was part of larger conflict over the U.S. government's control of millions of acres of public land in the West.

Dressed in blue jail scrubs with a small copy of the Constitution jutting from his pocket, Bundy repeated his assertions that federal ownership of lands settled and grazed by ranchers for generations was illegitimate.

Bundy, his brother Ryan and five others are charged with conspiracy to impede federal officers through intimidation, threats or force, as well as with possession of firearms in a federal facility and theft of government property.

According to prosecutors, the defendants carried rifles, stockpiled some 15,000 rounds of ammunition and practiced shooting drills during the takeover.

Prosecutors said the alleged conspiracy began in November 2015, soon after Bundy arrived in the nearby town of Burns, although Bundy testified he was there merely to mobilize local support.

As for using weapons at Malheur, Bundy said: "There was no way the FBI and federal government would allow us to express our First Amendment rights ... unless we expressed our Second Amendment rights, the right to bear arms."

Bundy choked back tears when asked by his attorney whether he missed his friend and compatriot Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, who was shot to death by police just after the Bundy brothers and others were arrested. "Yeah, I do," he replied.

More than two dozen people have been charged in connection with the takeover, and a second group of defendants are due to stand trial in February.

At the conclusion of their trial in Oregon, the Bundy siblings face assault, conspiracy and other charges from a separate 2014 standoff in Nevada.

(Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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