(Reuters) - The leader of a fringe religious sect in Canada refused to enter a plea to polygamy charges on Tuesday as a decades-long fight to charge members of the group living in British Columbia went to court.
Winston Blackmore, leader of the breakaway Mormon community of Bountiful in southeastern British Columbia, refused to acknowledge the charge against him, forcing the court to record a not guilty plea, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp reported.
Blackmore, 61, is accused of practising "a form of polygamy" or "a kind of conjugal union" with 24 women between 1990 and 2014, according to court documents.
Co-accused James Oler, 53, faces the same charge involving four women between 1993 and 2009, the documents show. Oler entered a not guilty plea.
The British Columbia government has been weighing prosecution since the early 1990s under Canada's century-old polygamy law.
But despite multiple police investigations, it had declined to pursue polygamy charges due to concerns that doing so would violate constitutional freedoms of religion.
In 2009, however, the government charged Blackmore and fellow sect member Oler with polygamy. Two years later, the Supreme Court affirmed that these charges were constitutional.
Blackmore's defence counsel argues that the polygamy law violates the community members' religious rights.
The two men face one count each of polygamy. None of the charges have been proven in court. The case is being heard in Cranbrook, British Columbia and is expected to take several weeks.
Reporting by Anna Paperny in Toronto; Additional reporting by Nicole Mordantin Vancouver; Editing by Stephen Coates