(Bloomberg) -- The leader of the right-wing Oath Keepers group was ordered to serve 18 years in prison for his role in the 2021 attack on the US Capitol and conspiring to use force to keep Donald Trump in power after he lost the 2020 presidential election. 

Stewart Rhodes, 58, was sentenced Thursday in Washington by US District Judge Amit Mehta, who ruled the actions of the group leader amounted to terrorism. Rhodes is one of 10 defendants convicted at trial of seditious conspiracy — four more pleaded guilty to that crime — for their actions on Jan. 6, 2021. Among them were other Oath Keepers and leaders of the far-right Proud Boys who have yet to be sentenced.

The prison term for Rhodes was the longest handed down so far in the government’s prosecution of more than 1,000 people over the storming of the Capitol, which disrupted the certification of the election of Joe Biden as president. The riot involved assaults on 140 police officers and caused more than $2 million in property damage. 

“Seditious conspiracy is among the most serious crimes an individual American can commit,” Mehta said. The attack on the Capitol was “one of the blackest days in the history of our country,” and the motive for Rhodes and others was “you didn’t like the new guy,” the judge said.

Mehta said Rhodes represents an ongoing threat to democracy. The country can’t have a group of citizens “prepared to take arms to foment revolution” because they didn’t like the outcome of the election, he said. “We all now hold our collective breaths every time an election is approaching. Will we have another January 6 again? That remains to be seen.” 

Read More: How Seditious Conspiracy Figures Into the Jan. 6 Riot

Rhodes “clearly had no regrets” about what happened, Mehta said. “He didn’t have any regret of his own people going in” to the Capitol to stop the vote, the judge said. The Oath Keepers leader was responsible for the actions of his co-conspirators because of his position in the group, as well as his words and actions, Mehta said.

Federal prosecutors, in court filings, had asked for a 25-year sentence, arguing the evidence at trial showed Rhodes “used his powers of persuasion and his platform as leader of the Oath Keepers to radicalize” others. Rhodes founded the Oath Keepers, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as a large, loosely organized anti-government militia. 

“Mr. Rhodes led the conspiracy,” government lawyer Kathryn Rakoczy told the judge at the sentencing hearing. “You can tell by how he acted and talked that he believed he was in charge.” While in custody, Rhodes has continued to advocate for political violence, Rakoczy said. She said a tougher sentence was justified because of the “threat of harm and the historical significance of trying to stop a presidential election for the first time.”

Defense lawyers argued for a much lighter sentence, citing Rhodes’ military service and his organization’s involvement in disaster relief efforts. They said Rhodes’ rhetoric didn’t break any laws and was “protected political speech.”

Call Logs

In the first of three Jan. 6 sedition trials, the US Justice Department spent weeks showing jurors hundreds of messages, video footage and call logs to back up their case that Rhodes and four other defendants coordinated to try to stop Biden from becoming president. Some of the defendants traveled together, stored firearms in a hotel outside of Washington and breached the Capitol building in an organized line, the evidence showed.

The government cast Rhodes as the leader of the plot with his talk of civil war after what he viewed to be a fraudulent presidential election and calls for members to use force if Trump didn’t act to stay in power. 

Defense attorneys argued that there was no evidence or testimony showing a plan to storm the Capitol or disrupt the electoral count and that prosecutors cherry-picked inflammatory statements. On the stand, Rhodes claimed that he was uninvolved in stockpiling weapons in Virginia and called some of the members “stupid” for entering the Capitol. 

“The government wants you to sentence Rhodes out of fear,” one of his lawyers, Phillip Linder, told the judge. “They want to make Rhodes the face of J6. Rhodes did not cause the events of J6. If you want to put a face on J6, you put it on Trump, right wing media, politicians. Rhodes was just one of the participants. He didn’t create it.”

‘Political Prisoner’

Before he was sentenced, Rhodes told the judge he considered himself a “political prisoner” who was prosecuted even though he never set foot inside the Capitol on Jan. 6 and was just exercising his free-speech rights. He also said the Oath Keepers were not a violent group. 

“I believe this country is incredibly divided” and the prosecution of the Jan. 6 cases “is making it even worse,” Rhodes said. “I would consider every J6er a political prisoner. It is going to make people feel that this government is even more illegitimate than it was before.”

Rhodes added that however long he spends behind bars, his goal will be “to expose the criminality of this regime.”

“We don’t think he is a threat to society and certainly he has a right to free speech,” Ed Tarpley, one of Rhodes’ attorneys, said to reporters outside of the courthouse. The defense team said they plan to appeal.

Rhodes was convicted in November, after the first of two seditious conspiracy trials against fellow Oath Keepers. Six were found guilty of the charge — which means they plotted to stop the transfer of presidential power with a use of force intended to oppose the authority of the US government. 

Rhodes ‘Deputy’ Sentenced

One of those convicted Oath Keepers, Kelly Meggs, was sentenced to 12 years in prison by Mehta on Thursday. The judge said Meggs was the “first deputy” to Rhodes.

Before he was sentenced, Meggs told Mehta he had “no knowledge of any plan to go into the Capitol and to stop the certification of the electoral college.” He said, “my vile and hateful language is the main reason I am standing here today.” 

Meggs said he should never have been involved in an event that “put a black eye on our country,” and the decision to be there “has not only destroyed my life but the life of my entire family.” He added, “I want to apologize to those I have disappointed and let down. My deepest regret is the pain and suffering I have caused my family.” 

The rare seditious conspiracy charge was the most serious crime alleged by the government in its expansion investigation into the Capitol riot. Earlier this month, former Proud Boys chairman Henry “Enrique” Tarrio and three other members were also convicted on the charge. 

A jury also found Rhodes guilty of obstruction of an official proceeding and tampering with documents.

The case is US v. Rhodes, 22-cr-00015, US District Court, District of Columbia (Washington).

(Updates with prison sentence ordered for co-defendant Kelly Meggs.)

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