By John L. Smith
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Opening arguments were slated to begin on Tuesday in the trial of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy for his 2014 armed standoff against federal agents that became a rallying point for militia groups challenging U.S. government authority in the American West.
Bundy, two of his sons and a third follower are accused of conspiracy, assault, firearms offenses and other charges in the latest of several trials stemming from the confrontation near Bunkerville, Nevada, 75 miles (120 km) northeast of Las Vegas. The trial is expected to run through February.
The revolt was sparked by the court-ordered roundup of Bundy's cattle by government agents over his refusal to pay fees required to graze the herd on federal land.
Hundreds of supporters, many heavily armed, rallied to Bundy's cause demanding that his livestock be returned. Outnumbered law enforcement officers ultimately retreated rather than risk bloodshed.
The face-off marked a flashpoint in long-simmering tensions over federal control of public lands in the West and a precursor to Bundy's two sons leading an armed six-week occupation of a federal wildlife center in Oregon two years later, in 2016.
Defense lawyers have generally argued the Bunkerville defendants were exercising constitutionally protected rights to assembly and to bear arms, casting the showdown as a patriotic act of civil disobedience against government overreach.
Prosecutors have argued armed gunmen were using force and intimidation to defy the rule of law.
Standing trial with Cliven Bundy, 71, are his sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, who also led last year's Oregon occupation, and a fourth defendant, Ryan Payne, a Montana resident linked by prosecutors to a militia group called Operation Mutual Aid.
A would-be fifth trial defendant, internet blogger and radio host Peter Santilli, pleaded guilty on Oct. 6 to conspiracy and faces a possible six-year prison term.
Six lesser-known participants in the Nevada ranch showdown went on trial earlier this year. Two were found guilty, one sentenced to 68 years in prison. The other is awaiting sentencing.
Two of the four remaining defendants from that group were retried and acquitted, and two others pleaded guilty to obstructing a court order. Each of them faces up to a year in prison.
Another group of six defendants, including two more Bundy sons, Dave and Mel Bundy, are due to stand trial after the current trial ends.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, along with five other people, were previously charged with criminal conspiracy in the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. That trial ended with the acquittal last year of all seven.
(Reporting by John L. Smith in Las Vegas; Editing by Ben Klayman)
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