Two senior members of the Proud Boys militia were handed hefty prison sentences Thursday for their role in the 2021 assault on the US Capitol by supporters of Donald Trump.
Joe Biggs, the Florida leader of the self-styled paramilitary group, was sentenced to 17 years in prison for seditious conspiracy and other charges, one year shy of the longest sentence given a participant in the January 6, 2021 riot.
Zachary Rehl, leader of the Philadelphia Proud Boys arm, got 15 years in prison on the same charges.
Prosecutors called them key figures in the attack by thousands seeking to forcibly overturn Joe Biden's November 2020 election victory, after Trump repeatedly claimed without any basis that there was massive fraud in the vote.
The attack, which followed a rally at the White House in which Trump urged supporters to march to the Capitol to protest against certification of the election, "broke our tradition of the peaceful transfer of power, which is one of the most precious things that we had as Americans," Judge Timothy Kelly said Thursday.
Kelly rejected prosecutors' call for up to 33 years in prison, saying the attack was hardly a terrorist-like mass casualty event, and neither Biggs nor Rehl killed anybody.
Nevertheless, Kelly said, "There is a need for deterrence."
- 'Aimed to terrify officials' -
They were two of five Proud Boys figures, including national chairman Enrique Tarrio, convicted on May 4 for taking a leading role in the military-style assault on the Capitol.
Rehl, Biggs, Tarrio and Ethan Nordean were convicted of seditious conspiracy, while the fifth, Dominic Pezzola, was found innocent on the sedition charge.
All five were also convicted for obstruction of a congressional proceeding, impeding law enforcement and destruction of government property.
Biggs, 39, is a US Army veteran who had worked closely with Tarrio to organize the group to storm the seat of Congress.
Two months before the attack, he posted that it was time for "war," referring to Trump's election loss to Biden.
After January 6, he declared on social media that the attack was a "warning" for the government.
Ahead of sentencing Thursday, prosecutor Jason McCullough said what Biggs and his fellow rioters had done in shutting down the Congress that day was "no different than the act of a spectacular bombing of a building."
"They aimed to intimidate and terrify elected officials," he said, equating the January 6 attack to terrorism.
A tearful Biggs however expressed deep regret for what had happened.
"I'm so sorry," he told the federal court in Washington.
"I know that I messed up that day, but I'm not a terrorist," he said.
- Trump blamed -
Norman Pattis, the attorney for both Biggs and Rehl, told the court that they followed the guidance of Trump in undertaking the attack, and questioned why Trump himself had not been charged with sedition.
Earlier this month a Justice Department special prosecutor charged Trump with separate conspiracy crimes for his role in advancing the false claim that the election had been stolen from him.
"What they did is they listened to the president of the United States," Pattis told the court.
The are "guilty of believing the president who told them the country was being stolen from them," he said.
Rehl, 38, a former US Marine, broke out in tears as he asked the judge for a lighter sentence.
"I wasted all my time on politics for people who aren't even here today, who never offered any support, and who carelessly watched as I sank further to the bottom," he said.
- Over 1,100 charged -
Biggs's sentence was one year short of the 18-year sentence given in May to Stewart Rhodes, the founder of another far-right militia central to the Capitol siege, the Oath Keepers.
Kelly's rulings Thursday suggested that Proud Boys national chairman Enrique Tarrio, who organized the group to go to Washington but was not at the Capitol himself, can expect a similar outcome when he is sentenced on September 5.
Prosecutors also recommended 33 years behind bars for him.
More than 1,100 people have been charged by the Justice Department in the Capitol attack.
Some 630 of them have pleaded guilty to various charges, and 110 have been found guilty at trial.
The government continues to prosecute people who took part in the insurrection, which resulted in five deaths and saw scores of police officers attacked and hospitalized.
On Thursday the Justice Department announced that two men were arrested in Virgina on charges relating to their participation in the storming of the Capitol, after being identified from open-source photographs and videos.