A group of self-described militiamen continue to occupy a federal building in the remote high desert of the US state of Oregon in protest against a prison sentence for local ranchers accused of burning government land.
Ammon Bundy told local newspaper The Oregonian on Sunday that he and two of his brothers were among “dozens of men” occupying the headquarters of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, close to the town of Burns, in Harney county, to show support for the two men sentenced to prison for arson.
“I feel we are in a situation where if we do not do something, if we do not take a hard stand, we’ll be in a position where we’ll be no longer able to do so,” he said.
Dwight Hammond, 73, and Steven Hammond, 46, were convicted of arson three years ago and served time – the father three months, the son one year. But a judge ruled that their terms were too short under US federal law and ordered them back to prison for about four years each.
The decision has generated controversy. In particular, the Hammonds’ new sentences touched a nerve with far-right groups who repudiate US federal authority.
The protest which started off as a rally on Saturday in support of the two men, quickly turned into a platform to raise issues of ongoing land-disputes in the state.
|Aamon Bundy says that he and others are occupying the building because “the people have been abused long enough” [Reuters/Jim Urquhart]|
Bundy posted a video on his Facebook page asking for “militia” members from across the country to come to help him. He said “this is not a time to stand down. It’s a time to stand up and come to Harney County.”
Dave Ward, Harney County sheriff, told residents to stay away from the building as authorities work to defuse the situation, the Oregonian newspaper reported. No workers were on duty when the occupiers arrived.
“A collective effort from multiple agencies is currently working on a solution. For the time being please stay away from that area. More information will be provided as it becomes available. Please maintain a peaceful and united front and allow us to work through this situation,” Ward said in a statement.
But the authorities’ approach to the group of armed men occupying a federal building in the US has come under intense criticism.
Commentators and activists online have criticised the media for failing to cover the situation accurately, and have also accused the security services of a soft approach to the armed occupiers.
— Cenk Uygur (@cenkuygur) January 3, 2016
Debates have raged on social media under the #OregonUnderAttack , and newspapers have battled to reach consensus on how to describe the armed men.
“As of Sunday afternoon, The Washington Post called them ‘occupiers’. The New York Times opted for ‘armed activists’ and ‘militia men’. And the Associated Press put the situation this way: ‘A family previously involved in a showdown with the federal government has occupied a building at a national wildlife refuge in Oregon and is asking militia members to join them,'” The Washington Post said .
The Hammonds, who are set to turn themselves in on Monday afternoon, have made it clear that they don’t want help from the Bundy group.
“Neither Ammon Bundy nor anyone within his group/organisation speak for the Hammond family,” the Hammonds’ lawyer W Alan Schroeder wrote to Sheriff Ward.