August 1, 2007 / 7:09 PM / 12 years ago

Canada urged to review legality of polygamy ban

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - A special prosecutor has recommended Canadian courts be asked to rule on the constitutionality of the country’s long-standing laws against polygamy, officials said on Wednesday.

But the independent prosecutor, prominent Canadian criminal attorney Richard Peck, has recommended that criminal charges not be filed against a U.S.-linked religious community that has openly practiced polygamy in Western Canada for years.

Peck said pursuing the charges related to sex with underage girls would not likely results in convictions on the “available evidence”, but the case left unanswered the broader issue of how Canada should handle the issue of plural marriage.

“The legality of polygamy in Canada has for too long been characterized by uncertainty,” Peck wrote in a report to British Columbia’s attorney general that was released to the media on Wednesday.

“Polygamy is the underlying phenomenon from which all the other alleged harms flow, and the public interest would best be served by addressing it directly,” Peck wrote, saying the province should put the issue to the courts in the form of a specific question rather than a criminal case.

B.C. Attorney General Wally Oppal told local media his office was considering Peck’s report, but might still press criminal charges so the constitutional issue would be raised by the defendants.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police had recommended charges be filed against unspecified members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).

Police launched the investigation in 2006 following media reports that leaders of the FLDS community in Bountiful, in southeastern British Columbia, had forced underage girls into marriages with older men.

Peck said he supported a decision by provincial prosecutors not to file criminal charges because of the unlikelihood of a conviction. Some of the female witnesses were reported to be unwilling to co-operate.

Plural marriages are illegal in Canada, but British Columbia prosecutors have been averse to press charges against the members of the FLDS for years out of concern the law could be struck down on the basis of religious freedom.

Oppal had asked for the independent prosecutor’s review of the RCMP report because of concerns over gaining convictions and the constitutionality of the law.

The FLDS is a breakaway sect of the Mormon Church that is believed to have about 10,000 members in Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia. The community in Bountiful on the U.S.-Canada border was established in the late 1940s.

The group’s U.S. leader, Warren Jeffs, is awaiting trial in Utah on charges he was an accomplice to rape for using his authority to order a 14-year-old girl against her wishes to marry and have sex with her 19-year-old cousin.

Polygamy is also illegal in the United States, and officials in British Columbia and Utah agreed in 2005 that they would co-operate in pursuing allegations of sexual exploitation by the group.

U.S. and Canadian officials have said it is difficult to investigate the allegations because the group is secretive and women who may have been abused have been taught from an early age that outsiders should not be trusted.

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