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PoliticsUnited States of America

US: 18-year sentence for Capitol Riots 'Oath Keepers' head

May 25, 2023

The founder of the far-right militia was found guilty of seditious conspiracy late last year. The sentence is the most draconian to date in connection with the US congress attack in January 2021.

Stewart Rhodes wears a black cap with the words "Oath Keepers, Lifetime Member" embroidered on it in yellow. He wears his customarly black eyepatch and glasses and speaks into a microphone while pointing his finger.
Stewart Rhodes said he considered himself a 'political prisoner' (file phone from 2017)Image: Susan Walsh/AP/picture alliance

A US federal judge slammed on Thursday the founder of the far-right militant Oath Keepers Stewart Rhodes with an 18-year prison sentence, after a court found him guilty in November 2022 of "seditious conspiracy" for his role in the January 6, 2021, Capitol Riots.

The 57-year-old Rhodes defiantly faced the judge, insisting he was a "political prisoner."

The sentence is believed to be the highest to date over involvement in the Capitol Riots.

The violent attack on the US Congress came two months after the November 2020 election, amid confusion over whether outgoing President Donald Trump planned to acknowledge his election defeat and the impending transition of power.

What happened during the hearing?

Prosecutors had urged the federal judge to sentence Rhodes to 25 years in prison and to sentence him using terrorism-based penalties. They argued that he remained a threat to US democracy.

US District Judge Amit Mehta did not issue the desired maximum sentence but did agree that terrorism penalties were appropriate for Rhodes, aruging that his Oath Keepers group had sought to influence the government through "intimidation or coercion." 

In previous January 6 sentencings, judges had refused the Justice Department's request for the "terrorism enhancement," which can mean a longer prison term for those on trial. In Rhodes' case, meanwhile, Judge Mehta said it fits.

"You present an ongoing threat and a peril to this country," the French AFP news agency quoted Mehta as telling Rhodes. "You are smart, charismatic and compelling and that is frankly what makes you dangerous."

"My only crime is opposing those destroying our country," Rhodes said.

Rhodes' defense lawyers had argued that their client never entered the Capitol and did not endorse his followers doing so. Judge Mehta, however, said this was not a credible position to take on behalf of the unequivocal leader of a large group of sometimes armed people he had summoned to the site that day. 

"Stewart Rhodes is a Yale Law grad and a pretty smart guy," the judge said. "He was the one giving the orders ... They were there because of him." 

What is the 'seditious conspiracy' charge?

Rhodes was found guilty of "seditious conspiracy" last November along with one lieutenant, Kelly Meggs. They were the first people in nearly three decades in the US to be tried and found guilty of the Civil War-era charge.

During the trial, lasting about two months, the US Department of Justice argued the Oath Keepers "concocted a plan for an armed rebellion" and those at trial were involved in "plotting to oppose by force the government of the United States."

Rhodes and Meggs were tried alongside Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell. They were the first of nearly 800 people arrested for their involvement in the January 6 attack to be put on trial for such serious offenses.

All five were found guilty of obstructing an official proceeding but the latter three were acquitted of the sedition charges.

US Capitol riot investigation

rmt/msh (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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