By Sarah N. Lynch and Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. prosecutors on Thursday charged Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the far-right Oath Keepers militia, and 10 other people with seditious conspiracy for their role in the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.
It marked the first time prosecutors brought that charge against defendants in the attack. The crime is defined as attempting “to overthrow, put down or to destroy by force the government of the United States.”
Supporters of former President Donald Trump that day stormed the Capitol in a failed bid to stop Congress from certifying his election loss to President Joe Biden. The attack occurred shortly after Trump in a speech repeated his false claims that his loss was the result of widespread voting fraud and urged his supporters to go to the Capitol and “fight like hell” to stop the election from being stolen.
The Oath Keepers are a loosely organized group of activists who believe that the federal government is encroaching on their rights, and focus on recruiting current and former police, emergency services and military members.
Prosecutors said that beginning in late December 2020, Rhodes used private encrypted communications to plan to travel to Washington on Jan. 6. He and others planned to bring weapons to the area to help support the operation, they said.
While some of the Oath Keeper members rushed inside the building wearing tactical gear, others remained stationed outside in what they deemed “quick-response force” teams, which were prepared to rapidly transport arms into the city, prosecutor said.
The indictment alleges that Thomas Caldwell, a previous defendant in the case, and Edward Vallejo of Arizona, a new defendant in the case, were in charge of coordinating these quick-response force teams.
Seditious conspiracy is a felony carrying a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Nine of the 11 defendants were already facing other charges.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, on the day before the anniversary of the attack last week, vowed to hold accountable anyone involved in the riot. The department has charged more than 725 people with crimes arising from the attack. Of those people, about 165 have pleaded guilty and at least 70 have been sentenced. Garland said the Justice Department would “follow the facts wherever they lead.”
Over the years, the Justice Department obtained seditious conspiracy convictions against Puerto Rican nationalists and alleged Islamist militants including Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman, the radical Islamic clergyman known as the “Blind Sheikh.”
Seditious conspiracy charges featured prominently in a case federal authorities brought in 1987 against leaders and members of a neo-Nazi group known as The Order. Fourteen alleged members or supporters were indicted, with 10 facing seditious conspiracy counts.
After a two-month trial, a jury acquitted all defendants.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Scott Malone, Doina Chiacu and Cynthia Osterman)