Bradley Manning is finally getting his day in court. The Army private accused of giving thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks took the witness stand on Thursday and Friday in a pretrial hearing. Manning and his defense lawyer are in essence putting the military on trial, arguing that Manning’s treatment in the Marine Corps brig at Quantico was so harsh that his court martial charges should be dropped.
Manning, 24, speaking in public in court Thursday at Fort Meade in Maryland for the first time since he was accused in May 2010 of leaking thousands of military and diplomatic documents to the website, detailed some of the 917 days he had spent in custody. He endured many of them in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day, stripped naked at night on suicide watch — conditions that the United Nations’ special rapporteur on torture found to be “cruel and unusual.”
Manning’s treatment was so beyond the pale, his defense contends, that the charges against him — including that he “aided the enemy” by his release of documents, which could result in life imprisonment — should be dismissed.
On Friday, military prosecutors sought to challenge that argument. Army Capt. Ashden Fein showed Manning a noose he made in custody in Kuwait in July 2010, before he was transferred to Quantico, to demonstrate that he deserved to be on suicide watch.
But military law experts told The Huffington Post that even if Manning’s court martial judge is convinced that his treatment was unnecessarily harsh, the odds are low that his charges will simply be dismissed.
“There is a legal basis for what they’re asking for,” said David Frakt, a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. “I tried the same thing at Guantanamo with my juvenile client, Mohamed Jawad.”
But it did not work. “I think it’s extremely unlikely that it will result in the dismissal of charges,” said Frakt. “Particularly given the gravity of the charges.”
Jonathan Hafetz, a law professor at Seton Hall University who has also represented prisoners held at Guantanamo, said Manning’s treatment was “eerily reminiscent” of conditions there. But he, too, said he doubted that will be enough to set Manning free. Instead, he argued, Manning’s lawyer, David E. Coombs, likely has another objective in mind: getting Manning a more lenient sentence if he is convicted.
“It’s an effort to kind of give another side of the story,” said Hafetz.
If all the charges against him are not dismissed, Manning has made a backup offer to plead guilty to some of the less serious ones. He would still face 16 years in prison.
Coombs, Manning’s lawyer, is likely seeking “to get sentence relief,” said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School. “That’s a perfectly good reason to make the argument that he’s already been punished … so maybe he’ll save a year or two.”
Coombs’s did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. An automatic email from his office said he would “not be granting interviews or responding to inquires at this time” about the Manning case.
The judge in the case has accepted the terms under which Manning could plead guilty to eight of the 22 charges against him. She will consider whether to accept those pleas in December. But even then, the government could go ahead with a trial on the other charges. Manning’s long legal saga may be just beginning.
Still, Manning’s testimony on Thursday and Friday could conceivably result in less time served. Or, as Fidell put it, “every day not served in the stockade is a good day.”