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VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Improper political interference led to polygamy charges being filed against two members of a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church, a Canadian court was told on Monday.
The court was asked to not proceed with charges against the members of U.S.-based Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS), which has been reported for years to be practicing plural marriages in a rural town in the Pacific Coast Canadian province of British Columbia.
The case is the first major test of Canada's more than century-old polygamy law, which some civil rights lawyers have warned may violate the country's constitutional protections of religious freedom.
Defense lawyers said British Columbia's attorney general abused the system by appointing a new special prosecutor after one appointed in 2007 declined to file charges because the case was likely not winnable. The new prosecutor did file charges.
"(The 2007 decision) should have been the end of the matter," said Bruce Elwood, an attorney for Winston Blackmore, one of two prominent members of the FLDS who were arrested in January.
The province decided to use a special prosecutor to avoid a possible conflict of interest because its own internal criminal prosecutors had warned in the 1990s the law was likely unconstitutional.
"The special prosecutor was intended to avoid any risk, real or perceived, of political interference," Elwood told a judge in Vancouver.
The FLDS established a community called Bountiful a short distance from the U.S. border in Lister, British Columbia, in the 1940s, where it is believed to have several hundred members.
While the FLDS in Bountiful largely shuns outside contact, some members have acknowledged that polygamy is practiced. Blackmore is accused of having 20 wives, while co-accused James Oler is alleged by police to have two wives.
The mainstream Mormon Church, which once supported polygamy but now denounces it, has taken pains to distance itself from the FLDS, whose U.S. leader and self-proclaimed prophet, Warren Jeffs, in currently in jail on sex charges.
According to the sect's doctrine, men are required to have multiple wives to get to heaven. Critics of the group, which has communities in Utah and Texas, say underage women are forced to marry and have sex with much older men.
Canadian prosecutors have denied there was anything improper in the filing of charges. They are scheduled to make their arguments to the court later in the week.
Legal observers have said the case will likely eventually reach the Supreme Court.
Defense lawyers told the court that if the charges are not stayed for the political abuse complaint, the defense should receive public funding so they can address the complicated legal issues involved.
Reporting by Allan Dowd, editing by Peter Galloway