Abandoned by international community, Bradley Manning begins fight for his life

bradley manning

Just over three years since being arrested on suspicion of being the source of a massive leak of classified documents – many providing evidence of U.S. war crimes and other serious crimes of state – to the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, Bradley Manning began his trial yesterday, facing the extremely serious charge of “aiding the enemy” which could potentially result in a death sentence.

Despite the international implications of the trial and the grave human rights abuses he has endured since his arrest in May 2010, leading human rights groups and international organizations are maintaining relative silence regarding the case.

Manning has spent his entire pre-trial period of three years in jail despite military law setting a maximum of 120 days of detention before a trial. His pre-trial punishment is also likely a breach of his rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the United States ratified in 1992. The Human Rights Committee of the United Nations has held that confinement of more than six months is incompatible with article 9 (3) of the ICCPR, which states:

Anyone arrested or detained on a criminal charge shall be brought promptly before a judge or other officer authorized by law to exercise judicial power and shall be entitled to trial within a reasonable time or to release. It shall not be the general rule that persons awaiting trial shall be detained in custody, but release may be subject to guarantees to appear for trial, at any other stage of the judicial proceedings, and, should occasion arise, for execution of the judgement.

In providing practical guidelines for the use of pre-trial confinement, the UN’s Handbook of International Standards relating to Pre-Trial Detention recommends that governments establish a maximum period of time during which a person may be detained without trial, which must abide by international standards, and if a prisoner’s detention exceeds that amount of time, he or she shall be released.

Needless to say, the U.S. military has not seen fit to adhere to these standards, unnecessarily delaying Manning’s trial for many months. As his lawyer David Coombs demonstrated at a pre-trial hearing earlier this year, although prosecutors were supposed to arraign Manning within 120 days, they took well over 600. Coombs also showed substantial periods of their inactivity and needless delay, despite a legal requirement to remain actively diligent throughout the proceedings.

For nine months of his pre-trial imprisonment, Manning was subjected to solitary confinement and other forms of punishment such as forced nudity, which were clear violations of his rights under international humanitarian law, including the ICCPR, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Manning’s denial of work and exercise opportunities, for example, was arguably a violation of the Standard Minimum Rules‘ stipulation that “An untried prisoner shall always be offered opportunity to work, but shall not be required to work. If he chooses to work, he shall be paid for it.” Further, despite the international requirement that “Every prisoner who is not employed in outdoor work shall have at least one hour of suitable exercise in the open air daily if the weather permits,” Manning was denied meaningful exercise opportunity.

Being forced to wear shackles while out of his cell was also likely out of step with the Standard Minimum Rules, which state: “Instruments of restraint, such as handcuffs, chains, irons and strait-jackets, shall never be applied as a punishment.”

Manning’s forced nudity clearly breached the letter and spirit of the Standard Minimum Rules’ stipulation that “An untried prisoner shall be allowed to wear his own clothing if it is clean and suitable.”

At the time of some of Manning’s most egregious treatment at the hands of his captors, the international community rallied to his defense, issuing strongly worded condemnations of U.S. actions which seemed to have a real effect in improving his living conditions.

In January 2011, for example, while Manning was being held in prolonged solitary confinement, Amnesty International sent a letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, calling Manning’s detention “unnecessarily harsh and punitive” and in “breach of the USA’s obligations under international standards and treaties.”

According to Amnesty:

The conditions under which PFC Manning is held appear to breach the USA’s obligations under international standards and treaties, including Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which the USA ratified in 1992 and which states that “all persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person”. The UN Human Rights Committee, the ICCPR monitoring body, has noted in its General Comment on Article 10 that persons deprived of their liberty may not be “subjected to any hardship or constraint other than that resulting from the deprivation of liberty; respect for the dignity of such persons must be guaranteed under the same conditions as for that of free persons …”.

In an open letter to President Obama, members of Congress and Pentagon officials in November 2011, members of the European Parliament expressed concern that “Manning has been subjected to prolonged solitary confinement and other abusive treatment tantamount to torture.”

Manning’s solitary confinement regime “constitute[d] at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture,” according to Juan Mendez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. “If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture,” he told the Guardian in 2012.

Largely in response to this international pressure, Manning was removed from solitary confinement and placed in medium security at Fort Leavenworth prison in April 2011.

Even the military judge, Col. Denise Lind, eventually agreed that the treatment he received was “more rigorous than necessary.”  At a pre-trial hearing in January 2013, she ruled that Manning had been subjected to illegal pre-trial punishment while held in a military prison in Quantico, Virginia.

Despite his supporters’ pleas that the remedy for this unlawful treatment should be immediate release from prison, Lind instead simply credited a total of 112 days toward any potential prison sentence Manning receives if convicted. (What this means if he receives a death sentence or life without parole is unclear.)

Unfortunately, since the partial victory in 2011 that resulted in slightly improved living conditions for the accused whistleblower, the international community and leading human rights organizations have largely remained silent over Manning’s case.

As David Cronin recently pointed out at CounterPunch,

Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, is a fearless defender of human rights – when it suits her. Happy to champion political prisoners in Iran and Ukraine, she is prepared to overlook persecution when it is carried out with the approval of her bosom buddies in Washington.

A search on Ashton’s website indicates that she has not issued a single statement on Manning’s incarceration. I asked her spokesman to explain this silence; he did not respond. Members of the European Parliament who have tried to solicit her views on this matter haven’t fared much better. Last year, Ashton answered a parliamentary question about an investigation by Juan Méndez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, which concluded that the treatment of Manning was “cruel and inhuman”. Ashton noted that the Méndez report highlighted “potential violations of rights” before making a vague commitment that the EU would “seek clarification” from the US authorities on “what measures they intend to take”.

He further notes the confounding silence on the case by Amnesty International.

There is little doubt that Manning has been imprisoned because of his sincerely-held political beliefs. So it is baffling that Amnesty International has so far declined to consider him a prisoner of conscience and to undertake a major campaign for his release.

Amnesty has told the Canadian blogger Joe Emersberger that it cannot deem Manning to be a prisoner of conscience until it has verified if he released the information in a “responsible manner”. I contacted Amnesty to check if Emersberger had accurately reflected its position but received no reply. Assuming that Emersberger is correct – and I’ve no reason to suspect he is not – Amnesty should specify what it means by “responsible”.

This silence has led to a grassroots effort to shame Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, in particular, to take a clear stand in support of Bradley Manning as his trial begins. As the campaign Amnesty4Manning points out, “When it comes to Manning support, Amnesty International has beat around the bush for three years. Human Rights Watch has been silent since the ONE article the organization published in 2011.”

The campaign is urging people to contact AI and HRW to ask questions such as “How does Amnesty International assess actual and potential human rights violations?”, “What is Amnesty International’s definition of a prisoner of conscience?”, and “Would Pfc. Bradley Manning fit Amnesty International’s definition of a prisoner of conscience?”

Avoiding the question of whether Manning qualifies as a prisoner of conscience (a label that Amnesty freely offers to various prisoners, such as the Pussy Riot punk rockers who are serving sentences of two years in Russia for hooliganism), Amnesty issued a rather mild-mannered press release yesterday calling for the U.S. to allow Manning’s defense to argue that he “acted in the public interest when he distributed information to Wikileaks.”

“The court must allow Manning to explain in full his motives for releasing the information to Wikileaks,” said Anne Fitzgerald, director of research and crisis response at Amnesty International. “It disturbing that he was not permitted to offer the ‘public interest’ defense as he has said he reasonably believed he was exposing human rights and humanitarian law violations.”

While it could be seen as welcome that Amnesty is finally breaking its silence on this case, the statement yesterday was seen as a bit too mild by some. As one Amnesty member posted on the group’s Facebook page, “I want to know where the hell Amnesty’s been on this, possibly the most significant, courageous political prisoner in a generation?” Another wrote, “Why hasn’t Amnesty recognized Bradley as the political prisoner he is?!?!”

Instead, Amnesty chose to focus on the more limited question of whether Manning should be allowed to explain his motives for releasing the documents to WikiLeaks.

“Allowing Manning to explain his motives only at the sentencing stage could have a chilling effect on others who believe that they are whistle-blowing, or acting in the public interest in disclosing information,” noted AI’s Fitzgerald. “Manning should have been allowed to explain how, in his opinion, the public interest in being made aware of the information he disclosed outweighed the government’s interest in keeping it confidential.”

Although Manning has not had the opportunity to formally explain how his actions were intended to benefit the public interest in a trial setting, he has made it clear that by releasing the information to WikiLeaks he hoped to inform the public of what its government does in its name.

Reading from a 35-page prepared statement at a pre-trial hearing earlier this year, Manning said: “I believed that if the general public, especially the American public, had access to the information … this could spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general.”

Further, it’s clear that the decision to leak the documents provided a real public service, considering the extent to which the government has overclassified historical documents, even those dealing with topics from three decades earlier. As investigative journalist Robert Parry recently explained in an article defending Manning’s actions,

I thought of Pvt. Bradley Manning when I recently received a response to one of my Freedom of Information Act requests to Ronald Reagan’s presidential library. I was seeking documents about President Reagan’s secret strategy of aiding Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its war with Iran.

Reagan’s tilt to Iraq in the early 1980s – while his administration also was winking at Israeli weapons sales to Iran – was part of a clandestine U.S. approach to the region which generated huge profits for arms dealers while feeding sectarian violence and political animosities that echo to the present day. It seemed to me that it was way past time to know the full truth.

However, though many of the events in question are now more than 30 years old – and thus are commonly thought to be readily accessible under FOIA – the reality is that the U.S. government still makes seeing such documents extremely difficult.

The letter from the Reagan library said the archivists would not even begin to process my request for “128 months,” that is more than 10 years, and then the process would involve time-consuming declassification reviews in which various agencies with “equity” interests would each have to sign off, along with whoever the sitting president is.

So, essentially, without courageous whistleblowers and leakers such as Bradley Manning willing to take the risks of providing classified documents to news outlets such as WikiLeaks, Americans may be denied access to information in perpetuity, even regarding events that took place over a generation ago.

There’s also the matter of whether Manning was within his rights and duties as a soldier to release information of wrongdoing. A recent column by legal expert Marjorie Cohn makes the case that not only was Manning right to release these documents, but according to the law, actually had a legal mandate to do so.

“Manning fulfilled his legal duty to report war crimes,” Cohn says. “He complied with his legal duty to obey lawful orders but also his legal duty to disobey unlawful orders.”

She further explains,

Section 499 of the Army Field Manual states, “Every violation of the law of war is a war crime.” The law of war is contained in the Geneva Conventions.

Article 85 of the First Protocol to the Geneva Conventions describes making the civilian population or individual civilians the object of attack as a grave breach. The firing on and killing of civilians shown in the “Collateral Murder” video violated this provision of Geneva. …

Enshrined in the US Army Subject Schedule No. 27-1 is “the obligation to report all violations of the law of war.” At his guilty plea hearing, Manning explained that he had gone to his chain of command and asked them to investigate the “Collateral Murder” video and other “war porn,” but his superiors refused. “I was disturbed by the response to injured children,” Manning stated. He was also bothered by the soldiers depicted in the video who “seemed to not value human life by referring to [their targets] as ‘dead bastards.’ “

Whether Manning’s actions were worth it in terms of the positive effects they have had is certainly a matter of debate, especially considering the enormous personal costs he is paying for those actions, and the unfortunate reality that Americans are generally ambivalent when it comes to war crimes and other violations of international norms committed by their government. But what’s beyond debate is that his heart was in the right place.

As his lawyer David Coombs pointed out in his opening arguments yesterday,

He was 22 years old. He was young. He was a little naive in believing that the information that he selected could actually make a difference. But he was good intentioned in that he was selecting information that he hoped would make a difference.

He wasn’t selecting information because it was wanted by WikiLeaks. He wasn’t selecting information because of some 2009 most wanted list. He was selecting information because he believed that this information needed to be public. At the time that he released the information he was concentrating on what the American public would think about that information, not whether or not the enemy would get access to it, and he had absolutely no actual knowledge of whether the enemy would gain access to it.

Young, naive, but good intentioned.

Fortunately, although being largely abandoned by mainstream human rights groups and forgotten by the international community, Manning does have significant support, as demonstrated by a rally over the weekend including the antiwar groups Veterans for Peace and Code Pink.

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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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