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24 July 2017

Canada polygamy trial: Verdict due in Bountiful polygamy trial

Winston Blackmore, who is accused of practising polygamy in a fundamentalist religious community, arrives for the start of his trial in Cranbrook, B.C., on April 18, 2017Image copyright
Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

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Winston Blackmore arrives at his trial in the town of Cranbrook, British Columbia

A long-awaited verdict in the trial of two Canadian religious leaders accused of polygamy is expected on Monday.

Winston Blackmore, 61, is accused of having 24 wives and his former brother-in-law James Oler, 53, is alleged to have married four women.

They are both former bishops of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).

The landmark polygamy trial is expected to test the boundaries of religious freedom in Canada.

Polygamy is illegal under Section 293 of Canada’s Criminal Code.

Mr Blackmore’s lawyer has argued that criminalising polygamy infringes on his client’s freedom of religion.

Both men face a maximum sentence of five years if found guilty.

Their trial took place in a British Columbia (BC) court this spring over the course of two-and-a-half weeks.

The two are from Bountiful in southeastern BC, a religious community of about 1,500 people and founded in 1946.

Residents are part of a breakaway Mormon sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) and have practised polygamy for over 70 years.

Mr Blackmore was excommunicated from the FLDS in 2002 and replaced by Mr Oler.

The sect has branches in the US, including Colorado City, Arizona, and Hildale, Utah, and about 10,000 members.

The FLDS split from the mainstream Mormon church over a century ago after it banned the practice of polygamy.

FLDS sect members are said to see polygamy as necessary for reaping reward in the afterlife.

The American former FLDS leader, Warren Jeffs, was sentenced to life in prison in 2011 by a Texas court for sexually assaulting two underage girls that he took as brides.

Image copyright
Reuters

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Former FLDS prophet leader Warren Jeffs excommunicated Winston Blackmore in 2002

This June, his brother Lyle Jeffs was arrested in South Dakota after fleeing house arrest in 2016 while awaiting trial with 10 other sect leaders for alleged food stamp fraud and money laundering.

Authorities in the US and Canada have collaborated on building cases against FLDS leaders.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police has had Bountiful in its sights since the 1990s over allegations of child abuse, coerced marriages, and the trafficking of teenage brides between the US and Canada.

Attempts to bring the case to trial stumbled over a lack of clarity around anti-polygamy laws in Canada.

In 2011, the BC Supreme Court upheld Canada’s anti-polygamy law as constitutional following a request for clarification from BC’s government.

According to the 335-page ruling, the law is a reasonable restriction on religious freedoms.

Justice Robert Bauman wrote that the “salutary effects of the prohibition far outweigh the deleterious” and noted that the institution of monogamous marriage “seeks to protect against the many harms which are reasonably apprehended to arise out of the practice of polygamy”.

Those “many harms” cited included the possibility of early sexualisation of girls, physical or sexual abuse, and the ostracisation of young men.

Queens University law professor Nick Bala, who was an intervenor in the 2011 BC court reference, says that questions around the constitutional validity of the law as well as difficulty gathering admissible evidence from the women involved with the sect made a case a struggle to build.

Mr Bala expects Monday’s verdict will be closely watched not just in Canada but in the US and Europe as well, where the debate around plural marriages is a significant issue.

Image copyright
Jonathan Hayward/The Canadian Press

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Winston Blackmore, pictured in 2008, has an estimated 145 children

Polygamy is illegal throughout the western world.

“This is a matter of national and indeed international significance and it’s likely to end up in the Supreme Court of Canada,” he said.

Mr Bala says there is still sufficient legal doubt around the constitutionality of the anti-polygamy law that he is not willing to predict Monday’s verdict.

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