December 8, 2005

Canada, U.S. to probe forced-marriage allegations

By Allan Dowd

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - U.S. and Canadian
prosecutors vowed on Thursday to co-operate in pursuing
allegations of sexual exploitation by a polygamist group that
has settlements in both countries.

Utah attorney general Mark Shurtleff met with officials in
British Columbia, who are under pressure to join the United
States in a crackdown on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus
Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS).

Men in the FLDS need three wives to enter highest realm of
heaven, according to the group's teachings.

Polygamy is illegal in both countries but still practiced
by religious sects that broke away from the Mormon church, such
as the FLDS, which is believed to have about 10,000 members in
Utah, Arizona, Texas and British Columbia.

Shurtleff said the crackdown is aimed less at the practice
of plural marriage, which polygamists say is a religious right,
than against allegations about the treatment of women,
including forcing young girls to marry older men.

"By co-operating and working together we can resolve some
of these problems and protect women and children who have been
victimized," Shurtleff said after meeting with Wally Oppal,
British Columbia's attorney general.

Canadian prosecutors have refused to file criminal charges
against polygamists in British Columbia out of fear the cases
would be dismissed on constitutional grounds, but Oppal said he
may follow the U.S. lead of using civil litigation.

Oppal said he will also look at helping U.S. prosecutors in
seizing property in Canada controlled by FLDS leader Warren
Jeffs, who went into hiding after he was indicted in June by
Arizona prosecutors on charges including sexual misconduct with
a minor.

Investigators say Jeffs may have fled to an FLDS enclave in
Bountiful, British Columbia, located on the border with Idaho,
northeast of Spokane, Washington.

Winston Blackmore, whose family helped found Bountiful in
1947, observed the attorneys general's news conference along
with two women from the community, and later disputed the abuse

"There is no sense in children being abused," said
Blackmore, who was ousted from the FLDS by Jeffs three years
ago but leads another polygamist community in the area.

Prosecutors said they had difficulty pursing abuse
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.

Mary Batchelor, of the Utah-based group Principle Voices,
said Canada can learn more on how to protect women who want to
report abuse, but fear they cannot support themselves if they
leave or are forced out of polygamist communities.

Some groups that monitor the FLDS say it has attempted to
hide abuse activities by trafficking women between its Canadian
and U.S. settlements.