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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canadian authorities filed polygamy charges on Wednesday against two leaders of a religious group that has openly practiced plural marriages in the province of British Columbia for years and has links to U.S. polygamist communities.
Prosecutors believe it is the first time that polygamy charges have been filed in Canada, but the case hinges on an anti-polygamy law that some legal experts have warned may violate rights to religious freedom.
British Columbia Attorney General Wally Oppal, a former judge, said he believes the law is constitutional because it because it protects women from sexual exploitation.
"I don't believe right-minded Canadians want (polygamy) to exist," Oppal said.
Winston Blackmore, 52, and James Oler, 44, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) were arrested without incident in the southeastern British Columbia community that the group calls "Bountiful".
Blackmore is married to 20 women, while Oler has two wives, according to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
Neither man was available for comment.
The FLDS, a breakaway sect of the mainstream Mormon Church, also has communities in the United States, where its leader and self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, has been convicted of forcing underage women to marry older men.
The group established its Canadian community in the 1940s, and while it largely shuns contact with outsiders, some members have openly acknowledged for years that plural marriages are practiced there.
The charges are based on an investigation first conducted in 2005 and 2006. Police had recommended then that charges be filed but prosecutors declined to act because of concerns about the law and the chances of winning a conviction.
Oppal had to use a special prosecutor to bring this case because of the regular prosecution service's public statements expressing doubts about its ability to get a conviction.
Police also said that some witnesses who had been reluctant to cooperate are now willing to testify. Police interviewed as many as 90 people in Canada and the United States.
The lack of witnesses has been cited by some U.S. officials as a reason that polygamy charges were never filed against Jeffs.
Blackmore and Oler have been rivals within the FLDS for several years after Jeffs tried to remove Blackmore from his position as a sect bishop. The Canadian community of about 700 has split over which man they back.
The mainstream Mormon church, which once supported polygamy but now denounces it, has taken pains to distance itself from the FLDS. An compound belonging to the U.S. sect was raided by Texas authorities last year.
Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Peter Galloway