Known for his eye patch and his fiery speeches, this former soldier will appear with four co-defendants for five weeks in a federal court located not far from the headquarters of Congress.
On January 6, 2021, they 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 have been arrested and around 100 have received prison sentences, including the perpetrators of violence against the police. But never, so far, has anyone had to defend themselves from "sedition".
The charge, which stems from a law passed after the Civil War to repress the last rebels in the South, "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 implies having planned 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 charge has been used very little: the last conviction for sedition came in 1998 against Islamist militants responsible for a bombing of the World Trade Center in New York five years earlier.
- Stock d'armes -
In the case of the assault on the Capitol, the prosecutors held him against only 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.
Their trial will begin with the selection of twelve jurors from a panel of 120 citizens.
According to the indictment, "they conspired to oppose by force 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 it without 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 using it later.
On January 6, helmeted and dressed in combat gear, 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 "stand ready to answer his call to arms", according to the indictment.
- Insurrection -
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 deemed "oppressive".
Like other radical groups, this militia was seduced by Donald Trump's anti-elite rhetoric 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 acolytes did not want to overthrow the government but that they expected the Republican billionaire to declare a state of insurrection, under an 1807 law that allows American presidents to mobilize certain armed forces in exceptional circumstances.
For the prosecutors, it is only a question of giving "a legal varnish" to their actions.