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1st Trial Over Nevada Standoff Begins For Cliven Bundy Followers

The federal conspiracy trials against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers is beginning on Monday, with jury selection for the trial of six of Bundy's supporters.

The cases, stemming from a 2014 armed standoff against federal agents in Nevada, are unfolding in several stages. Bundy and his four sons are among the 17 total defendants but won't be immediately entering the courtroom.

Instead, the first phase involves six of Bundy's followers, each facing up to 101 years in prison, according to The Associated Press.

The six men — from Idaho, Arizona and Oklahoma — have been "characterized as the least culpable 'followers and gunmen' among the 19 men arrested a year ago," the AP writes. (Two of the men arrested already pleaded guilty to conspiracy, the news service explains; the other 17 men are the defendants in the current case.)

"They're not the Bundys," an attorney for one of the men tells the AP. "But realistically, this is a Bundy case. The outcome of this trial affects the other two."

The underlying conflict that led to the armed standoff in Nevada goes back decades. Since the '90s, Bundy had refused to pay required grazing permits and fees to the U.S. government — the government says he owes about a million dollars, all told.

A court ordered him to remove his cattle from federal lands. NPR's Kirk Siegler explains what came next:

"It all boiled over in April of 2014 when federal agents came to round up hundreds of his cows near his ranch in the Nevada desert.

"They were met by the the armed Bundy militia, some on horseback, waving American flags. Interstate 15 was blocked. Guns were drawn and things got extremely tense. Federal agents in military-style combat fatigues eventually stood down. ... Cliven Bundy wasn't arrested until almost two years later."

Bundy's arrest early last year came about because of another high-profile, Bundy-led armed standoff between anti-federalist militants and the U.S. government.

Two of his sons, Ammon and Ryan, were leading an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in early 2016. Cliven Bundy flew up to join them, and was arrested in Portland, Ore.

In the months since, the Malheur occupiers surrendered — and then, in a surprising court decision, several occupiers were acquitted of charges that they conspired to keep federal employees from doing their jobs.

The result emboldened the Bundy militia in Oregon, as Kirk reported at the time.

And it may have prosecutors on the Cliven Bundy cases rethinking their strategy, Kirk reports. He spoke with Rick Pocker, former U.S. attorney for Nevada, who said, "The pressure is really on the government.

"If there's two straight acquittals, of individuals who engage in pretty much the same conduct and it's very confrontational, that could embolden a lot of folks on the right wing of the ideological spectrum," Pocker told Kirk.

And there's another wrinkle in the cases, the AP reports:

"The government may also have to overcome a potentially damaging new BLM inspector general ethics and conduct report, made public this week.

"It said the Salt Lake City-based land management supervisory agent who headed the Bundy cattle roundup misused his position during the 2015 Burning Man festival in northern Nevada, and manipulated a hiring process so a friend could get a bureau job."

In general, jury selection will be important in this case as a whole, Kirk reports; sentiments on the federal government and land issues can vary widely between rural and urban communities.

Jury selection is expected to take several days.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.