June 2, 2008 / 9:15 PM / in 9 years

Canada polygamist group may face criminal charges

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A Canadian polygamist community belonging to the same breakaway religious sect that was raided by Texas authorities in April is again facing possible criminal charges, officials said on Monday.

A special prosecutor has been appointed to look at allegations of misconduct in the Bountiful, British Columbia, community whose members have quietly practiced polygamy since the late 1940s.

But the announcement also exposed a split in the provincial attorney general’s office over how to pursue a case that has some prosecutors fearing it will lead to Canada’s anti-polygamy laws being declared unconstitutional.

A special prosecutor decided last year not to pursue criminal charges, but suggested the Supreme Court of Canada be asked directly if the polygamy law was constitutional or if it unfairly infringed on religious rights.

That recommendation was repeated in April by a lawyer hired to review the prosecutor’s findings, who also warned a court might rule it was unfair to prosecute people who thought officials were turning a blind eye to what was happening.

A special prosecutor was named after British Columbia Attorney General Wally Oppal said he disagreed with the earlier recommends.

“A valid criminal law is and should be enforced. To do so is appropriate and is not unfair,” Oppal said in a statement.

Residents of the community, located along the Idaho boarder in southeastern British Columbia, are members of a renegade Mormon sect known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or FLDS.

U.S. police raided the Yearning for Zion ranch in West Texas belonging to the FLDS in April and removed over 400 children in an investigation of alleged abuse, including underage girls forced to marry older men.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled last week that the seizure of the children was unwarranted and a judge on Monday allowed the children to be returned to their parents.

Critics of the FLDS have made similar exploitation allegations about the Canadian group, but the prosecutor who looked at the case last year declined to file charges because the “available evidence” was unlikely to result in convictions.

Oppal said he believes there is enough evidence to support filing criminal charges, but the final decision will be up to the new special prosecutor.

Canadian and U.S. officials have complained that investigating the FLDS is difficult because the group is secretive and women who may have been abused have been taught from a early age not to trust outsiders.

“I think the difficulties they are having in Texas show that,” Oppal said.

One of the children seized in Texas was a girl from Bountiful visiting the ranch, according to Canadian officials.

Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson

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