The 41-day siege led by brothers Ammon (in photo) and Ryan Bundy was meant to protest federal ownership of public lands. Photograph: (AFP)
The 7 anti-government militants had taken over the Malheur national wildlife refuge in January this year
Brothers Ammon and Ryan Bundy and five others were acquitted by the jury of Portland district court on Thursday for their 41-day armed siege in January this year of the Malheur national wildlife refuge in Oregon.
The brothers had led the takeover of the obscure bird sanctuary after two ranchers were imprisoned for arson.
The verdict was pronounced after a five-week trial, after which all seven anti-government militants walked free from charges of conspiracy to impede federal officers through intimidation and force as well as gun possession.
Just the charge of impeding federal officers through intimidation would have led to six years in prison.
During the standoff and the trial, the militants insisted they acted in support of the two Oregon ranchers whom they felt were unfairly treated and to protest against federal ownership of public lands, Reuters reported.
The ruling came as a surprise with defense attorney Lisa Ludwig calling it "stunning". Social media users however reacted to the verdict as "unreal" and "a sad day for America".
Oregon governor Kat Brown also tweeted her disappointment, saying, "The occupation of the Malheur Refuge by outsiders did not reflect the Oregon way of respectfully working together to resolve differences," AFP reported.
Statement regarding the Malheur Refuge Occupation trial: pic.twitter.com/4vViyzrLD7— Governor Kate Brown (@OregonGovBrown) October 27, 2016
Neil Wampler, one of the defendants, told The Oregonian newspaper, "It's a tremendous victory for rural America – a disastrous, humiliating defeat for the corrupt federal government."
There was some added drama in the courtroom when Ammon Bundy's lawyer, Marcus Mumford, was tackled by marshals after an argument with the judge who refused to let Bundy walk free due to an earlier case pending against him in Nevada.
The Bundys' father, Cliven Bundy, was involved in a similar standoff in 2014 over grazing cattle in public lands in Nevada.
(WION with inputs from agencies)