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By MICHAEL KUNTZELMAN, ALANA DURKIN RICHER and LINDY WHITEHURST – Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — The founder of the extremist group Oath Keepers Stuart Rhodes was sentenced Thursday to 18 years in prison for masterminding a week-long plot that culminated in an attack on his supporters US Capitol in an attempt to keep President Joe Biden out of the White House after winning the 2020 election.
58-year-old Rhodes became the first person convicted of seditious conspiracy in the attack on January 6, 2021, to receive his sentence, and his sentence is the longest of all the hundreds of riot cases in the Capitol.
It’s another milestone in the Justice Department’s sweeping investigation on Jan. 6 that led to treasonous conspiracy convictions against top leaders of two far-right extremist groups who authorities say came to Washington ready to fight to keep President Donald Trump in power at all costs. .
In the first case, on Jan. 6, a judge agreed with the Justice Department that Rhodes’ actions should be punished as “terrorism,” increasing the recommended sentence under federal rules. The ruling could portend long sentences for other far-right extremists, including former Proud Boys leader Enrique Tariowho were also convicted of a rarely used charge.
Before handing down Rhodes’ sentence, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta described the defiant Rhodes as a constant threat to the United States and democracy. The judge expressed concern that what happened on January 6 could happen again, saying that Americans “will now hold our collective breath every time an election approaches.”
“You’re smart, you’re charismatic and you’re persuasive, and frankly, that’s what makes you dangerous,” the judge told Rodas. “As soon as you are freed, whenever that may be, you will be ready to take up arms against your government.”
Rhodes did not take his chance to address the judge to express remorse or ask for leniency, instead declaring that he is a “political prisoner,” criticizing prosecutors and the Biden administration and trying to downplay his actions on Jan. 6.
“I am a political prisoner and, like President Trump, my only crime is to stand up to those who are destroying our country,” said Rhodes, who appeared in a federal court in Washington wearing orange prison garb.
Mehta responded that Rhodes was prosecuted not for his political beliefs, but for what the judge called “a crime against the people of the country.”
“You are not a political prisoner, Mr. Rhodes,” said the judge.
Another Oath Keeper convicted of the seditious conspiracy along with Rhodes — Florida chapter leader Kelly Maggs — is expected to be sentenced later Thursday. The other oath-keepers are expected to be sentenced on Friday and next week.
After an almost two-month trial, a jury in Washington found Rhodes guilty of conspiring to violently disrupt the transfer of presidential power. Prosecutors allege that Rhodes and his followers recruited members, stockpiled weapons and created “quick response force” teams at a Virginia hotel that could ship weapons to the nation’s capital when they were needed to support their plot. The weapon was never deployed.
It was one of the most high-profile cases of the Capitol riots launched by an administration seeking to prove that the attack by right-wing extremists such as Oath Keepers was not a spur-of-the-moment protest but the culmination of weeks of plotting to overturn Biden’s victory.
Rhodes’ arrest in January 2022 during a riot at the Capitol was the culmination of a long-standing path of extremism this included an armed standoff with federal authorities at the Bundy Ranch in Nevada. After founding the Oath Keepers organization in 2009, the Yale Law graduate turned it into one of the largest far-right anti-government groups in the US, however it seems to have weakened after the arrests of the jurors.
The judge agreed to prosecutors’ request for a so-called “terrorist enhancement” — which could lead to a longer prison term — on the grounds that the oath-keepers sought to influence the government through “intimidation or coercion.” Previously, in 6 cases, such requests were rejected.
Prosecutors demanded 25 years for Rhodes, arguing that a a long sentence was necessary to deter future political violence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Catherine Racozzi pointed to interviews and speeches Rhodes gave from prison repeating the lie that the 2020 election was stolen and saying it would happen again in 2024. Just a few days ago, Rodas called for “regime change”, the prosecutor said.
People “across the political spectrum” want to believe that January 6 was “an exception,” Rakozzi said. “Not defendant Rhodes.”
Rhodes, of Granbury, Texas, plans to appeal his conviction.
Attorney Philip Linder told the judge that prosecutors were unfairly trying to make Rhodes a “person” on Jan. 6, adding that Rhodes could have sent many more sworn in to the Capitol “if he really wanted” to derail congressional certification of the Electoral College vote.
“If you want to put a face on J6 (Jan. 6), you’re going to put it on Trump, the right-wing media, the politicians, all the people who have been pushing this narrative,” Linder said.
Rhodes’ sentence could signal the punishment prosecutors will seek for Tario and other Proud Boys leaders convicted of seditious conspiracy. They will be sentenced in August-September.
Oath keepers said there was never any plan to attack the Capitol or prevent Congress from certifying Biden’s victory. The defense tried to seize on the fact that none of the Oath Keepers’ reports laid out a clear plan to storm the Capitol. But prosecutors said the oath-keepers saw an opportunity to advance their goal of stopping the transfer of power and sprang into action when the crowd began storming the building.
Messages, tapes and other evidence presented at trial implicate Rhodes and his followers increasingly enraged after the 2020 election in the prospect of President Biden, whom they saw as a threat to the country and their way of life. In an encrypted chat two days after the election, Rhodes told his followers to prepare their “mind, body and spirit” for “civil war.”
In a conference call a few days later, Rhodes urged his followers to tell Trump they were “ready to die” for the country. One juror listening in was so alarmed that he began recording the conversation and contacted the FBI, telling jurors that “it sounded like we were going to war against the United States government.”
Until Thursday, the sentence was the longest in more than 1,000 riot cases at the Capitol 14 years for someone with a long criminal record who attacked police officers with pepper spray and a chair as he stormed the Capitol. Just over 500 defendants were convicted, with more than half receiving prison terms and the rest receiving sentences such as probation or house arrest.
Richer reported from Boston.
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