The verdict delivered on Tuesday, November 29, after three days of deliberations, sounds like a victory for prosecutors who have been investigating the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol for almost two years. Stewart Rhodes, founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, and a member, Kelly Meggs, were convicted of “sedition” for their part in the assault on Washington.
This charge, which stems from a law passed after the Civil War to repress the last rebels in the south, involves having planned the use of force to oppose the government. It differs from insurrection, which has a more spontaneous character.
After two months of a very well-attended trial, the twelve jurors, on the other hand, dismissed this extremely rare charge, punishable by 20 years in prison, for three other members of the Oath Keepers (“the guardians of the oath”). They were all convicted of obstruction of due process and will be sentenced in the spring of 2023.
Nearly 900 people arrested
On January 6, 2021, a crowd of supporters of Republican President Donald Trump sowed chaos and violence in the seat of Congress, when elected officials certified the victory of his Democratic rival, Joe Biden, in the presidential election. Since this coup, nearly 900 people have been arrested and around 100 have received prison sentences, including the perpetrators of violence against the police. But so far no one has been convicted of “sedition”.
Difficult to prove, this charge has been used very little: the last conviction for sedition was pronounced in 1998 against Islamist militants responsible for a bomb attack against the World Trade Center in New York five years earlier.
During the trial, prosecutors showed that Stewart Rhodes started rallying his troops as early as November 2020. “We are not going to get out of this without a civil war”, he wrote to them two days after the presidential election on encrypted messaging. In the following weeks, he, they say, spent thousands of dollars buying night vision devices, weapons and ammunition, and stored that arsenal in a hotel in suburban Washington.
“Like a general on the battlefield”
On the day of the attack, helmeted and dressed in combat gear, several members of the Oath Keepers marched on the Capitol. Some had formed a column to break in and had turned back after receiving irritant gas. Others had entered its enclosure in military formation. Stewart Rhodes had remained outside, but according to prosecutors, he had led his troops with a radio, “like a general on the battlefield”.
On the witness stand, this tribune, recognizable by his black eye patch, denied “to have planned” this attack and argued that the ” assignment “ of the Oath Keepers was to provide security for the demonstration called by Donald Trump to denounce alleged “election fraud”.
Claiming to have been presented with a fait accompli, he considered ” dumb “ that Kelly Meggs, who leads the Florida chapter of the Oath Keepers, entered the Capitol. “It opened the door to our political persecution, and look where we are”said Stewart Rhodes in particular.
A former law graduate from Yale University, this 50-year-old with a winding career founded the Oath Keepers in 2009, recruiting former soldiers or police officers, initially to fight against the federal state, judged “oppressive”. Like other radical groups, this militia was seduced by Donald Trump’s anti-elite rhetoric and fully subscribed to the allegations of electoral fraud brandished – against all evidence – by the Republican.