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News brief: Oath Keepers' trial, protests inside Russia, Iran's foreign minister

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

It's the most consequential January 6 trial so far. And it starts today in Washington, D.C.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Stewart Rhodes is at the center of this. He's the founder of the far-right group called The Oath Keepers. He and four others are charged with seditious conspiracy in connection with the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

MARTINEZ: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas has been covering this case from the beginning. Ryan, who are the defendants, and what are they being charged with?

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: So there are five defendants who are going on trial here. The biggest name is the one that was mentioned at the top there, Stewart Rhodes. He's a former Army paratrooper, Yale Law School graduate. But most importantly, for our purposes here, he's the founder of The Oath Keepers, which is this big anti-government, self-styled militia, one of the biggest in the country. And prosecutors say Rhodes and his co-defendants conspired to use force to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden's election win on January 6. Now, these defendants all face a slew of criminal charges, including obstruction of an official proceeding and most importantly, though, seditious conspiracy. And that one is a big deal. It carries a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

MARTINEZ: And what's the government's case against them?

LUCAS: So the government's case is built on text messages the defendants sent each other, as well as audio recordings, financial records, videos, of course, from January 6. And prosecutors say the evidence shows that shortly after the November 2020 presidential election, Rhodes and his co-defendants began plotting to use force to try to block the transfer of power to Joe Biden and that they spent months recruiting and training and organizing to do so. And the indictment cites text messages that Rhodes allegedly sent after the election. In those messages, he warns of a civil war and, quote, "a bloody and desperate fight" if Biden takes office. On January 6 itself, the defendants had guns stashed at a hotel in Virginia and men on call to ferry those weapons into D.C. if Rhodes thought that they were needed. And then at the Capitol, several of the defendants, although not Rhodes, they put on tactical gear and marched in military formation up the steps of the Capitol through the crowd and into the building with the mob. But prosecutors say it didn't end there. Even after January 6, they say, Rhodes bought thousands of dollars of guns and military gear and continued to urge his followers to resist the Biden administration.

MARTINEZ: What about defense attorneys? How are they going to push back against the government?

LUCAS: So in pretrial proceedings, we've heard a couple of things. Some of them have argued that The Oath Keepers were in D.C. on January 6 to provide security for VIPs at the Trump rally and to protect Trump supporters in case, say, antifa attacked them. Rhodes' attorneys have also argued that all of the chatter and planning ahead of January 6 were really just preparations in case Trump invoked the Insurrection Act, which could have allowed Trump to call up militias to support him. Now, invoking the Insurrection Act is something that Trump had publicly toyed with, dating back to the summer of 2020. But prosecutors say this argument is just legal cover. It's just a ruse. And they say that the defendants were ready to act regardless of what Trump did.

MARTINEZ: Why is this case, Ryan, seen as such an important January 6 prosecution?

LUCAS: Well, it's seen as so important because of the central charge here of seditious conspiracy - this allegation of an attack on the U.S., in essence - so it has political and symbolic weight, but also because this case is against the founder of one of the largest militia groups in the country. The government has not lost a January 6 jury trial so far. Failing to win a conviction in this high-profile case, particularly on seditious conspiracy, could undermine the Justice Department's assertion that the Capitol attack posed a uniquely dangerous threat to American democracy, that it was more than just a rowdy rally. So this trial is a big deal. It's an important trial. It's expected to last around five weeks or so, and it gets under way today with jury selection.

MARTINEZ: NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas. Ryan, thanks.

LUCAS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ: A man walked into a Russian recruitment office and opened fire, injuring an officer.

MARTIN: It happened yesterday in the Russian region of Siberia. The shooting was part of the growing resistance against Vladimir Putin's decision to mobilize some 300,000 reservists for the Kremlin's military campaign in Ukraine. And as the domestic backlash to this decision grows, Russia is also holding the final day of voting in this series of referendums in occupied portions of Ukraine.

MARTINEZ: For more on both, we're joined by NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, the mobilization was announced on Wednesday. The protests aren't huge, but they're also not going away either. In fact, they seem to be spreading.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Yeah. You know, A, there are real signs of discontent and not in the usual opposition hot spots like Moscow and St. Petersburg. As you mentioned, we saw this lone gunman wound that enlistment officer at the recruitment center in Siberia. The suspect's family later said he was angry his best friend had been drafted to fight in Ukraine despite having no military experience. Meanwhile, in the town of Ryazan, this is outside Moscow, a would-be draftee set fire to himself yesterday to avoid service. In Dagestan to Russia's south, we've seen two straight days of protests as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

MAYNES: Here was the scene in the capital, Makhachkala, where women in particular were out on the streets chanting no to war. A melee later broke out between demonstrators and police. And that follows dozens of other anti-mobilization demonstrations around the country with over 2,200 people detained since Putin's announcement.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, we've seen video of long lines of cars backed up at the border, presumably men trying to get out of there and rumors of border closures to men of fighting age. Tell us about that.

MAYNES: Well, right. You know, the Kremlin says there are no plans to shut the borders, but that hasn't convinced young Russian men to stop running or, more to the point, driving for the exits in neighboring countries. They've also been jumping on planes for places where visa-free travel still exists, but those tickets are drying up or getting insanely expensive. We hear now of $10,000-plus airfares for what used to cost a fraction, and that's if you're lucky. You know, this morning, Turkey's national carrier announced it was stopping service from Russia until the new year.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now back to the voting in Ukraine. It's obviously condemned by the West as a sham, an effort to annex these areas part of Russia. How's the Kremlin selling this vote back home?

MAYNES: Well, as you know, you know, this voting has been condemned by the West as a violation of international law. And the end goal in Russia indeed seems to be annexation, but it also seems to be part of a Kremlin strategy to reframe the conflict at home. You know, before, people were told Russian troops were liberating Ukraine. After these votes are tallied and the territories are presumably annexed, the government can argue Russian forces are now defending this newly expanded homeland. Whether that argument is convincing to average Russians is a different issue.

MARTINEZ: Now, finally, a familiar name popped up in the news. Edward Snowden, the former NSA whistleblower, is still in Russia, and it's just been announced that he's now a Russian citizen.

MAYNES: Yeah, you know, many will remember Snowden arrived in Russia back in 2013 after leaking files that exposed this vast surveillance network. During the pandemic announced - Snowden said he and his wife wanted to apply for Russian citizenship, and Vladimir Putin issued a decree making it so.

MARTINEZ: All right. That's NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow. Charles, thanks.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTINEZ:

All right. We turn now to Iran. Security forces there have used force in a bid to crush anti-government protests.

MARTIN:

The protests started after the death of Mahsa Amini. She's an Iranian woman who was detained this month by the morality police. They allege that she wasn't dressed properly according to the government's view of Islam. She died while she was in custody. And in the demonstrations since then, women have sometimes removed or burned their mandatory head coverings.

MARTINEZ: And it's against that backdrop that our colleague Steve Inskeep met with Iran's foreign minister in New York yesterday. Steve, how does he talk about these events?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Well, he insists there's a serious investigation of how Mahsa Amini died, but he's dismissing the importance of the protests since - the foreign minister, we should say, is Hossein Amirabdollahian. And he told us the protests are quote, "not a big deal" and added quote, "there is not going to be regime change," which reflects the broader way the government is casting these protests, in dozens of cities, by the way, saying they're all illegitimate.

MARTINEZ: Illegitimate. So what does he mean by that?

INSKEEP: Well, he claims they're stirred up by foreign media and foreign websites for the most part. Here's our - part of our conversation through his interpreter.

HOSSEIN AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpret) So Iranian people are emotional people, and they have pure sentiments. And the early hours after the incident, they protested peacefully. And it came to an end. But in the meantime, there have been some outside elements, like satellite channels, some websites, that have been encouraging people inside Iran to pour into the streets and to turn violent. And this has - this is why the demonstrations turned violent and into riots.

INSKEEP: As a past visitor to Iran, who's interviewed hundreds of people in Iran, I have trouble believing that this is entirely stirred up from the outside. I have heard many people express frustration about the government and about the rules of the government. Do you not think that these protests come from the people or at least some of the people of Iran?

AMIRABDOLLAHIAN: (Through interpreter) There are protesters, of course, and they are expressing what they demand in a peaceful way. But now most of these people in the streets are being led and guided by well-organized channels.

INSKEEP: Now, the broader context, A, is that Iranians often vote for reform and more openness when they're allowed. But in the most recent elections, they were not allowed. The more reform-minded candidates were disqualified, leading to the election of the conservative government that installed this foreign minister. Clerics hold ultimate power, and that frustrates a lot of people.

MARTINEZ: Yeah, I know activists have claimed that police have killed many protesters. The U.N. has talked about excessive force. How does he respond to that?

INSKEEP: Well, he wasn't specific, but he did not deny force is being used. He said it's necessary because protesters have been destroying things.

MARTINEZ: How bad, Steve, is the timing of these protests for Iran's government?

INSKEEP: Well, it came while Iran's president was making a case for his country at the United Nations, at the U.N. meetings in the past couple weeks; also while Iran is trying to conclude a nuclear deal with the United States - or I guess I should say re-conclude. Since the U.S. withdrew, the Biden administration wants back in. The incentive here is for Iran to get some relief from sanctions. And there's a connection between the sanctions and the protests. Because as far as I could tell, when visiting Iran, sanctions relief is popular. A lot of Iranians want to open their country a little more to the world. Isolation is less popular, and that is one of the things that people have been protesting.

MARTINEZ: That's Steve Inskeep. Steve, thanks.

INSKEEP: You're welcome.

MARTINEZ: For Steve's full interview with the Iranian foreign minister, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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