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By the time the 23-year-old soldier’s court martial starts on February 4, 2013, Bradley Manning will have spent 983 days in prison, including nine months in solitary confinement, without having been convicted of a single crime. This week, in pre-trail hearings, a military court is reviewing evidence that the conditions under which he has been held constitute torture. These conditions include the nine-month period spent 23 hours a day in a six-by-eight-foot cell where he was forbidden to lie down or even lean against a wall when he was not sleeping – and when he was allowed to sleep at night, officers woke him every five minutes – and where he was subjected to daily strip searches and forced nudity. The UN Special Rapporteur for Torture has already found this amounted to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, and possibly torture.
For almost three years Manning has endured intense physical and mental pressure, all designed to force him to implicate WikiLeaks and its publisher Julian Assange in an alleged conspiracy to commit espionage. It is also a message to would-be whistleblowers: the U.S. government will not be gentle.
“[If] you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, D.C.… what would you do? … It’s important that it gets out…it might actually change something… hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms…”
These are purportedly Manning’s words*, and that is change many of us would like to believe in: that if you give people the truth about their government’s unlawful activities, and the freedom to discuss it, they will hold their elected officials accountable.
But it is one thing to talk about transparency, the lifeblood of democracy, and even to campaign on it – in 2008, candidate Obama said, “Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal” – and another thing to act on it. On a fundamental level, Manning is being punished, without being convicted, for a crime that amounts to having the courage to act on the belief that without an informed public our republic is seriously compromised. Or, as he is quoted saying, for wanting “people to see the truth… regardless of who they are… because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”
The U.S. government is intent on creating a portrait of Manning as a traitor who aided and abetted Al Qaeda by releasing classified information into the public domain. But what actually occurred was that documents were sent anonymously to WikiLeaks, which published them in collaboration with The New York Times, The Guardian and other news media for the benefit of the general public, much like the Pentagon Papers were published a generation ago.
The emails the prosecution is using to try to prove Manning was the source of the leaks also depict the side of the story they want to hide, that of a young soldier grappling with the dilemma of a would-be whistleblower who knows he is taking great risks by exposing the state-sponsored crimes and abuses he witnessed, the “almost criminal political back-dealings… the non-PR-versions of world events and crises,” as he is quoted describing them to the confidant who ultimately betrayed him.
“I will officially give up on the society we have if nothing happens.” One can’t help wondering what Manning must think now, after so long under such brutal conditions of confinement. Did he expect the government to punish him in such a disproportionate and unlawful manner?
Manning’s abusive pre-trial treatment is a clear violation of the Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and even U.S. military law. In fact, Manning’s defense attorney David Coombs is arguing in the pre-trail hearings this week that in view of this blatant disregard for his client’s most fundamental rights, all charges should be dismissed.
The government claims this was all done to prevent Manning from committing suicide, though any rational observer might point out that these conditions are more likely to drive someone to suicide than keep him from it. The more likely explanation is the obvious one: the government wants to break Manning enough to force him to implicate WikiLeaks and Assange, and make enough of a show of it to deter other whistleblowers. At stake is the foundation of our democracy, a robust free press, and the fate of a true American hero.
*Disclaimer: Bradley Manning has not been convicted of any charges, nor has he admitted to any of the allegations against him. Likewise, he has not acknowledged the chat logs that purport to be his words.
Michael Ratner is President Emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents WikiLeaks and Julian Assange as well as other journalists and major news organizations seeking to make the documents from the Manning trial public.