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Assault on the Capitol: who are the Oath Keepers, judged from this Tuesday?

More than 20 months after the assault on the Capitol, several members of a far-right militia particularly active in the United States must answer charges of "sedition" before American justice.

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Assault on the Capitol: who are the Oath Keepers, judged from this Tuesday?

More than 20 months after the assault on the Capitol, several members of a far-right militia particularly active in the United States must answer charges of "sedition" before American justice. Extreme positions, cascading conspiracies steeped in racism, the trial of the Oath Keepers which opens this Tuesday, September 27 in Washington promises a real excursion into the worst of conspiracy. With, as a bonus, the shadow of an increasingly openly conspiratorial Donald Trump floating on the walls of the court.

On January 6, 2021, the Oath Keepers (or “guardians of the oath” in French) were among those who attacked the temple of American democracy with a thousand other Trumpist supporters, when the elected officials certified the victory of the Democrat. Joe Biden for president. "The Oath Keepers are deeply rooted in the American complosphere and are major players in the Alt Right. Like other movements, such as the Proud Boys and Qanon with whom they maintain links, they fantasize about being on the “an armed uprising, against an enemy from within”, relates Tristan Mendès France, associate lecturer at the University of Paris, specialist in digital cultures.

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". This charge, which stems from a law adopted after the Civil War to suppress the last southern rebels, "can be difficult to prove", told AFP Barbara McQuade, a former federal prosecutor now a professor. of law at the University of Michigan. Still, the nature of the activities of the Oath Keepers, and the strong political tensions in the United States have pushed the magistrates to summon five of them for this reason, including Stewart Rhodes, the founder of the group, recognizable among a thousand, with his eye patch and his fiery speeches.

This 56-year-old former soldier illustrates the shift of the American far right, from opposition to the federal government to the fierce and armed defense of Donald Trump. Enlisted in the army after high school, he quickly finds civilian life after a bad parachute jump. Another accident: in 1993, he was injured with a gun and lost his left eye. He has since worn a distinctive black headband. After going back to school, living on his wife's salary as a stripper, he earned a law degree from the prestigious Yale faculty, but settled in Nevada, far from the big paying law firms. Libertarian, he founded Oath Keepers in 2009, after the election of Barack Obama.

Its objective: to recruit men and women with military or police experience, ready to "keep their oath". At the time, it was a question of protecting individual freedoms - such as the carrying of arms - against federal power. Gradually, the group turns into a militia, with the help of armed training. The election of Trump galvanizes them, because the former American president shares the conspiracy theses of the Oath Keepers.

The latter are indeed convinced that a deep state has signed a pact with a “new world order” to “greatly replace” white people in the United States. "They were the relays of all the major conspiracy theories, linked to Covid, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And they of course amplified the theories that emerged during Trump's term of office", specifies Tristan Mendès France. "They use these materials to feed their political agenda, made of a paranoid anti-system discourse. They use fake news as a political instrument", concludes the expert.

The hero of this armed resistance against an enemy that does not exist is therefore called Stewart Rhodes, and openly pushes for "civil war", all the more since his arrest at the beginning of the year 2022. "He s "A kind of mythological character was created: he saw himself as a kind of historical figure and in a way, it took place", declared in January 2022 his wife Tasha Adams, who has been fighting since 2018 to obtain a divorce from a man, according to her, "dangerous"

Stewart Rhodes reportedly spent thousands of dollars buying weapons before storing them near Washington, and arranging transportation for activists to the capital around January 6. "We are not going to get out of this without a civil war," he wrote two days after the presidential election, on encrypted messaging. On D-Day, again by this means, he gives his orders, without entering the Capitol himself. "He is very good at making other people take all the risks," according to his wife. What to be condemned for sedition? Punishable by 20 years in prison, this charge 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.

Other components seem not to fit, at first glance, with the patriot persona that he and the Oath Keepers have built for themselves. “There is also a connotation of disloyalty towards the country, not only against certain government actors”, notes Barbara McQuade. Attacking Congress, and destabilizing the democratic functioning of a country, by resorting to violence, is it serving your country? The Oath Keepers "stand ready to answer his call to arms", according to the indictment. The court, a few meters from the place of this conspiratorial insurrection, will have to decide.

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. 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.

As always, the battle is legal in the United States. But this remains exceptional. This sedition charge has been used very little in American history: the last conviction for sedition was handed down in 1998 against Islamist militants responsible for a bombing of the World Trade Center in New York five years earlier. They too were "oath keepers".

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