(Reuters) - The father-and-son Oregon ranchers pardoned by U.S. President Donald Trump stepped off a plane and embraced their family on Wednesday, more than two years after their sentencing on arson convictions sparked a 2016 occupation of a wildlife refuge.
The 41-day standoff, which began after the ranchers were imprisoned for a second time for setting a fire that spread to public land, stirred the long-simmering dispute over federal land policies in the U.S. West. It turned deadly when police shot one of the occupiers. [nL1N1U60RW]
A crowd of supporters cheered as Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son, Steven, 49, arrived at Burns Municipal Airport in southeastern Oregon. Local officials including a Republican congressman had urged Trump to pardon them.
U.S. Representative Greg Walden, who had sought the pardon, called their release "an acknowledgement of our unique way of life in the high desert, rural West" in a statement on Tuesday. He declined further comment Wednesday.
Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who also petitioned the government to pardon the Hammonds soon after Trump's election, also welcomed the decision.
"There's no way we can thank everybody enough," Dwight Hammond told reporters at the airport as he stood alongside his wife, Susan.
The Hammonds were convicted in 2012. They said they were using standard land-management techniques, but federal prosecutors said that in at least one instance they were trying to hide evidence of their killing a herd of deer.
They were initially sentenced to less than the legal minimum five years in prison by a judge who called that minimum harsh. After prosecutors appealed, a different judge in 2015 ordered the men back to prison for the full five years, sparking protests and the occupation of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.
Dwight Hammond served about three years in prison and Steven served four, according to the White House. They were released from a federal prison in California on Tuesday after Trump's pardon.
The Center for Western Priorities, a conservation group, called the Hammonds "lawless extremists."
The pardons are the latest in a series that have raised questions about whether Trump is using his presidential power to reward supporters.
Others who have been pardoned include conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza who pleaded guilty to violating federal campaign finance laws, and former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who campaigned for Trump before being convicted in a case regarding racial profiling.
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(Reporting by Jonathan Allen in New York and Scott Malone in Boston; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Jeffrey Benkoe)