By Alex Dobuzinskis
(Reuters) - A federal judge ruled on Friday that eight anti-government militants facing criminal charges in the armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife center can now communicate with each other ahead of a trial set for next month.
The easing of restrictions imposed as a condition of the pretrial release of four defendants comes after defense lawyers in May accused jail officials of hindering meetings with some of their clients and not providing a confidential phone line.
The four released defendants were prohibited earlier this year from speaking among themselves or with the four others, who remained jailed on charges stemming from the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon.
U.S. District Judge Anna Brown in Portland, Oregon, ruled on Friday that all eight defendants are now "allowed to have contact with each other for the sole purpose of preparing for and participating in trial," set to begin Sept. 7.
A second group of defendants charged in connection with the Oregon occupation are scheduled to go on trial separately next February.
The Malheur takeover, which started on Jan. 2 with at least a dozen armed men, was the latest flare-up in a decades-old conflict over federal control of millions of acres of public land in the West.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, brothers who led the protest, remain jailed on charges of conspiracy to impede federal officers and possession of firearms in a federal facility, according to court records.
Ryan Bundy was found to have fashioned a makeshift rope from bedsheets in an apparent escape plan, a judge wrote in court papers filed in July.
The Bundys' six co-defendants facing trial next month also are charged with conspiracy, and most face the weapons charge as well.
U.S. District Judge Robert Jones, also of Portland, revealed on Thursday that he had allowed the Bundy brothers in June to be transported from their jail to a courthouse to meet with their lawyers in greater privacy.
An attorney for the Bundys could not be reached, and a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to comment on the easing of restrictions on the defendants.
Ammon and Ryan Bundy, along with their father, rancher Cliven Bundy, are also charged in a separate case for their role in an armed standoff with federal agents in Nevada in 2014.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Steve Gorman and Leslie Adler)