By Sarah N. Lynch
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -A federal judge sentenced the founder of the far-right militant Oath Keepers Stewart Rhodes to 18 years in prison on Thursday for seditious conspiracy and other crimes related to the U.S. Capitol attack, after a defiant Rhodes stood before him and insisted he is a “political prisoner.”
“For decades, Mr. Rhodes, it is clear you have wanted the democracy of this country to devolve into violence,” U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta said.
“You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes,” he said, adding that he believes Rhodes represents an “ongoing threat” to the country.
Rhodes, a former Army paratrooper turned Yale-educated lawyer, was convicted in November by a federal court jury in Washington. Mehta is due to sentence co-defendant Kelly Meggs, a former Florida Chapter leader also convicted of seditious conspiracy, at 1:30 p.m. EDT (1730 GMT).
Rhodes’ prison term represents the longest sentence for any of the 1,000-plus people charged in connection with the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack by supporters of Republican then-President Donald Trump in a failed bid to block Congress from certifying Democratic rival Joe Biden’s November 2020 election victory.
Until now, the longest sentence was 14 years in prison given to a Pennsylvania man who attacked police during the rampage.
Prosecutors had sought a sentence of 25 years for Rhodes.
“Mr. Rhodes led a conspiracy to use force and violence to intimidate and coerce members of our government into stopping the lawful transfer of power following a presidential election,” federal prosecutor Kathryn Rakoczy said. “As the court has just found – that is terrorism.”
Ahead of his sentencing, a defiant Rhodes stood before Mehta, clad in an orange jumpsuit, and insisted that he is a “political prisoner” who, like Trump, was trying to oppose people “who are destroying our country.”
“I believe this country is incredibly divided. And this prosecution – not just of me, but of all J6ers – is making it even worse. I consider every J6er a political prisoner and all of them are being grossly overcharged,” he said.
He also vowed to “to expose the criminality of this regime” from his prison cell.
In addition to seditious conspiracy – a felony charge involving attempting “to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force the government of the United States” – Rhodes was convicted of obstructing an official proceeding and tampering with documents. Rhodes was acquitted of two other charges.
As part of their sentencing request, prosecutors asked the judge to enhance Rhodes’ sentence based on several factors, including his “terroristic conduct.”
Mehta agreed that all of those proposed sentencing enhancements could be applied, saying the evidence showed that Rhodes “was at the top of the chain” and he was culpable for the actions of the entire group.
Rhodes, who wears an eye patch after accidentally shooting himself in the face with his own gun, founded the Oath Keepers in 2009. The militia group’s members include current and retired U.S. military personnel, law enforcement officers and first responders. They have appeared, often heavily armed, at protests and political events including racial justice demonstrations that followed the 2020 murder in Minneapolis of a Black man named George Floyd by a white police officer.
Prosecutors are asking Mehta to sentence Meggs, the group’s former Florida chapter leader, to 21 years in prison.
Some of the Oath Keepers breached the Capitol clad in paramilitary gear. Others at a suburban hotel staged a “quick reaction force” prosecutors said was equipped with firearms that could be quickly transported into Washington. Rhodes was on Capitol grounds that day but did not enter the building.
Two others associated with the Oath Keepers, Jessica Watkins and Kenneth Harrelson, are due to be sentenced on Friday. They were acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted on other felony charges. Four Oath Keepers members convicted of seditious conspiracy in a second trial are due to be sentenced next week.
The judge postponed a sentencing hearing that had been scheduled for Wednesday for Thomas Caldwell, another co-defendant acquitted of seditious conspiracy but convicted of other charges.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Will Dunham and Mark Porter)
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