Trump pardons ranchers whose case sparked Bundy takeover of OR refuge

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WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump issued pardons on Tuesday for two men convicted of arson whose cause had been championed by right-wing militias and sparked the armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

The pardons are Trump's latest show of wielding his presidential power to grant clemency, which critics say intends to dramatize his own complaints of being the victim of a "witch hunt" by United States prosecutors.

The Hammonds said they were using standard brush-control and land-management techniques, but the government said in at least one instance they were trying to hide evidence of their slaughtering a herd of deer.

The statement added: "Justice is overdue for Dwight and Steven Hammond, both of whom are entirely deserving of these Grants of Executive Clemency".

The White House noted Dwight Hammond is now 76 years old and has served approximately three years in prison.

The move came years after the convictions of Dwight and Steven Hammond, part of a family in the high desert of eastern OR known for its generosity and community contributions.

In its statement Tuesday, the White House called the appeal "overzealous" and the resulting sentence "unjust".

A trial court agreed with the Hammonds that the five-year mandatory minimum sentence was unconstitutional and imposed lesser sentences, the U.S. Attorney's Office statement said. When first convicted, Dwight Hammond was sentenced to serve three months and Steven Hammond a year and a day - far less than the five-year mandatory minimum. In Oregon, about half of all land is controlled by the federal government. The pair had also coughed up $400,000 to settle a civil suit with the feds.

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While numerous Hammonds' supporters didn't approve of the takeover, they saw the Obama administration's pursuit of longer prison sentences as vindictive.

But after prosecutors won an appeal, the Hammonds were resentenced to serve the mandatory minimum, the AP said, which sparked a protest from Ammon Bundy and many others - as well as an occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near the Hammond ranch in southeastern OR from January 2 to February 11, 2016.

Cliven Bundy said he was glad Trump pardoned the Hammonds.

During the standoff at the refuge, FBI Agent W. Joseph Astarita allegedly shot rancher Robert "LaVoy" Finicum when officers arrested leaders of the occupation.

But President Obama's Department of Justice appealed, and in 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the administration's favor.

The federal government's approach to the Hammonds reflects "prosecutorial misconduct" that's evident in other cases, said Ramona Morrison, daughter of deceased Nevada rancher and "Sagebrush Rebellion" icon Wayne Hage.

A US flag covers a sign at the entrance of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns, Oregon, January 3, 2016.

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