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Bradley Manning postpones offering a plea in WikiLeaks case

Published time: February 23, 2012 22:30
Edited time: February 24, 2012 02:30
Bradley Manning is escorted from the courthouse at Fort Meade, Maryland after closing arguments in his Article 32 hearing December 22, 2011 (Reuters / Yuri Gripas)

Bradley Manning is escorted from the courthouse at Fort Meade, Maryland after closing arguments in his Article 32 hearing December 22, 2011 (Reuters / Yuri Gripas)

Private First Class Bradley Manning sat quietly before a military judge in rural Maryland on Thursday and was formally arraigned on the 22 counts that could put him in prison for life. Manning, only 24, declined to offer a plea.

Nearly two years after he was first put behind bars, the court martial against Manning officially began on Thursday, but it could be months before the trial progresses further. After being formally arraigned for the first time, Manning deferred entering a plea and now it will take another appearance before the case advances onward.

The next court hearing for Manning is now set to start on March 15, but it could be August before the US military is ready to begin its case. Manning is allowed to defer offering a plea up until that time.

Over charges that range from aiding the enemy and theft of public property or records to transmitting defense information and fraud in connection with computers, a conviction for Manning could land him in prison for the rest of his life. Since his arrest on May 25, 2010, he has been held in various locations under solitary confinement and, according to his attorney, has been subjected to cruel and unusual punishment. The United Nation’s special rapporteur on torture and 50 members of European parliament have in that time demand that the US government investigate their treatment of Manning, but such conditions are likely to continue as he awaits the next steps in the proceedings.

The US Constitution requires the court martial to convene within 120 days of charges being introduced, but the American government told a judge today that they might not be ready to move on with their prosecution under early August. David E. Coombs, a civil attorney that represents PFC Manning, objected to the notion and reminded the court that his client has already been imprisoned for 635 days as of Thursday.

"If the government had its way, it would be over 800 days before the trial actually begins,” said Coombs.

The US military’s manual for all courts martial requires that the 120-day window that occurs before the trial’s start begins with the preferral of charges, where accusations are introduced before the hearing commences. The US government made that preferral on June 5, 2010. "The defense would argue that due process rights of my client,” said Coombs, according to a report from the UK’s Guardian.

Previously, the US government said they’d be ready for the trial by this April.

Army Col. Denise R. Lind is presiding over the case and, according to activist Logan Price, the judge claims to have no prior knowledge to the case. Price, who was at Fort Meade for the arraignment, said the only information Lind claims to know regarding the case is the name of Manning and that the hearing will deal with classified materials.

The US government alleges that, while an intelligence specialist in the Army, Manning broke the law by passing classified information onto the whistleblower site WikiLeaks. According to evidence submitted during a pre-trial hearing this past December, Manning allegedly took credit for distributing materials while corresponding with an online friend.

"I was the source of the July 12, 2007, video from the Apache Weapons Team which killed the two journalists and injured two kids,” Manning allegedly said. The video in question, since dubbed ‘Collateral Murder,’ explicitly linked US soldiers with the execution of unarmed, innocent civilians.

"This is possibly one of the more significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war and revealing the true nature of 21st century asymmetric warfare. Have a good day,” the court says Manning described the video.

During Thursday’s brief, 45 minute arraignment, protester David Eberhardt loudly called out to Col. Lind, "Judge, isn't a soldier required to report a war crime?" Eberhardt, a 70-year-old native of Baltimore, was incarcerated in 1967 over a demonstration in which he protested the Vietnam War by pouring blood on draft files.

Following last year’s pre-trial hearing, the US Army said that they believed there was "reasonable grounds exist to believe that the accused committed the offenses alleged,” and recommended Manning for a proper court martial.