By Julie Ann Formoso
LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy and his followers were defying the rule of law by threat of violence, rather than engaging in a legal protest, when they took up arms against federal agents who had seized his cattle, a U.S. prosecutor told jurors on Tuesday.
Bundy, two of his sons and a fourth defendant are accused of conspiracy and other charges stemming from their role in the 2014 armed standoff, which galvanized militia groups challenging U.S. government authority in the American West.
The acting U.S. attorney for Nevada, Steven Myhre, laid out the government's case against the four men in opening statements at a trial expected to last through February, anticipating defense arguments that Bundy and supporters essentially had staged an act of patriotic civil disobedience.
"These events were not protests. A protest sends a message peacefully," Myhre said. "It is a crime to impede ... an enforcement officer as they execute an order of the court."
The revolt was sparked by the court-ordered roundup of Bundy's cattle by agents of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management after he had refused for 20 years to pay his fees required to graze his herds on federal property.
Answering Bundy's call for help, hundreds of followers - many heavily armed - rallied to his ranch near Bunkerville, Nevada, about 75 miles (120 km) northeast of Las Vegas, in April 2014, demanding that his livestock be returned.
Outnumbered law enforcement officers ultimately retreated rather than risk bloodshed, and no shots were ever fired.
During his two-hour presentation to the jury, Myhres displayed photos from the confrontation showing armed men crouched liked snipers peering through the scopes of rifles he said were pointed at law enforcement. He also exhibited social media posts he said were used to recruit militia members, including images that gave a false impression that Bundy was under siege at his ranch.
The defense was due to present its opening statements after a lunch break. Earlier in the day, about 20 Bundy supporters formed a prayer circle just outside the federal courthouse in Las Vegas. Others packed the defense side of the courtroom gallery during proceedings, many taking notes on legal pads.
The Bunkerville dispute marked a flashpoint in long-simmering tensions between activists and the government over federal control of public lands in the West, and gave rise two years later to an armed occupation by some of Bundy's followers of a U.S. wildlife center in Oregon.
Standing trial with Bundy, 71, are his sons, Ammon and Ryan Bundy, along with Ryan Payne, a Montana resident linked by prosecutors to a militia group called Operation Mutual Aid.
In addition to conspiracy charges, they are accused of assault, obstruction of justice, felony threats and various firearms offenses.
Cliven and Ammon Bundy wore red jail uniforms on Tuesday in court, while Ryan Bundy and Payne dressed in civilian clothes.
A would-be fifth defendant, internet blogger and radio host Peter Santilli Jr., pleaded guilty on Oct. 6 to conspiracy and faces a possible six-year prison term.
Six lesser-known participants in the Nevada showdown went on trial earlier this year. A mistrial was declared for four of them, and the jury found two guilty, one of whom received a prison term of 68 years. The other awaits sentencing.
Of the four remaining defendants from the first trial, two were retried and acquitted, and two pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for a maximum one-year prison term.
Yet another group of six defendants, including two other 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 all acquitted in a separate conspiracy case last year arising from the 2016 armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in remote eastern Oregon in Oregon.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Michael Perry and Lisa Shumaker)