A figure of the American far right tried for “sedition”

A figure of the American extreme right judged for «sé ;edition»


More than 20 months after the assault on the Capitol, a much-anticipated trial began Tuesday in Washington, where several members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, including its founder Stewart Rhodes, are on trial for sedition. 

The lawyers for this former soldier, known for his black eye patch and his fiery diatribes, attempted final procedural remedies, in particular to obtain the expatriation of the hearings.

They were refused and the selection of jurors, which must last at least two days, began in a federal court, located a stone's throw from Congress Headquarters.

On January 6, 2021, the defendants attacked the temple of American democracy with a thousand other supporters of Donald Trump, when elected officials certified the victory of Democrat Joe Biden in the presidential election.

Since this coup, more than 870 people were arrested and a hundred received prison sentences, including the perpetrators of violence against the police. But, so far, no one has had to defend themselves against “sedition”.

This charge, which emanates from a law adopted after the Civil War to suppress the last southern rebels, “can be difficult to prove”, explains Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor now professor of law at the University of Michigan.

Punishable by 20 years in prison, he involves planning the use of force to overthrow the government or oppose one of its laws. It differs from insurrection, which has a more spontaneous character.

“There is also a connotation of disloyalty towards the country, not only against certain government actors”, notes Barbara McQuade. For her, however, the “motive is clear in this case, where the attack was clearly aimed at elected members of Congress”.

This count has been used very little: the last conviction for sedition was pronounced in 1998 against Islamist militants responsible for a bombing of the World Trade Center in New York five years earlier.

In the case of the assault on the Capitol, the prosecutors held him against only about fifteen people, all members of two far-right paramilitary groups, the Oath Keepers and the Proud Boys.

Stewart Rhodes and four regional leaders of his militia – Kelly Meggs, Thomas Caldwell, Jessica Watkins, Kenneth Harrelson – are the first to be tried in this capacity.

According to the indictment, “they conspired in order to forcibly oppose the legal transfer of presidential power.”

Concretely, Stewart Rhodes is accused of having started to rally his troops in 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 an encrypted message.

In the following weeks, he, according to prosecutors, spent thousands of dollars buying night vision devices, weapons and ammunition, while his accomplices organized “unconventional combat” training and transport to Washington.

The carrying of weapons being strictly regulated in the capital, they are accused of having stored part of their arsenal in the nearby suburbs with the idea of ​​having recourse to them later.

January 6, helmeted and dressed in battle dress, they had marched towards the Capitol. Some had formed a column to break in and had turned back after receiving irritant gas.

Stewart Rhodes had remained a little further apart, armed with a radio, in order to dispense his orders. The Oath Keepers “stood ready to answer his call to arms”, according to the indictment.

A former Yale law graduate, this winding 50-something Oath Keepers in 2009, by recruiting former soldiers or police officers, initially to fight against the federal State considered “oppressive”.

Like other radical groups, this militia was seduced by the anti-political discourse -Donald Trump's elites and fully endorsed the allegations of electoral fraud brandished – against all evidence – by the Republican.

During the trial, his lawyers will argue that Stewart Rhodes and his cronies did not wish to overthrow the government , but that they expected the Republican billionaire to declare a state of insurrection, under an 1807 law that allows US presidents to mobilize certain armed forces in exceptional circumstances.

< p>For the prosecutors, it is only a question of giving “a legal varnish” to their actions.