Did Manning’s court-martial meet international fair trial standards?
“Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.”
— Universal Declaration of Human Rights
With a sentence expected to be handed down in Bradley Manning’s court-martial this week, the presiding judge, Col. Denise Lind, is coming under criticism for possible lack of judicial independence, calling into question the fairness of the trial and any sentence that he receives.
Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, said that throughout the trial, it has been “disappointing to see that almost every ruling, whether they’re major or minor, seems to go against the defense.” Others have noted that despite spending three years in pretrial confinement, Lind ruled that the delays had been “reasonable.”
Before the trial even began, President Barack Obama declared Manning’s guilt by flatly stating, “He broke the law.” The president’s declaration was widely picked up by the media, likely having significant influence over the public perception of Manning’s case, as well as potentially sending a message to the judge, a direct subordinate of Obama as Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces.
As Glenn Greenwald noted at the time, “The impropriety of Obama’s public pre-trial declaration of Manning’s guilt (‘He broke the law’) is both gross and manifest. How can Manning possibly expect to receive a fair hearing from military officers when their Commander-in-Chief has already decreed his guilt?”
He called it “reckless in the extreme for him to go around decreeing people guilty who have not been tried: especially members of the military who are under his command and who will be adjudged by other members of the military under his command.”
Steven Aftergood, a classified information expert at the Federation of American Scientists, told Politico.com, “The comment was not appropriate because it assumes that Manning is guilty. The president got carried away and misspoke. No one should mistake a charge for a conviction — especially the nation’s highest official.”
Beyond simply inappropriate, the president’s comment may have breached the United States’ commitments to international fair trial standards. According to Article 14(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “Everyone charged with a criminal offense shall have the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law.”
As the Lawyers Committee on Human Rights explains this provision of the ICCPR, “The presumption of innocence must … be maintained not only during a criminal trial vis á vis the defendant, but also in relation to a suspect or accused throughout the pre-trial phase. It is the duty of both the officials involved in a case as well as all public authorities to maintain the presumption of innocence by ‘refrain[ing] from prejudging the outcome of a trial.’”
Obama’s declaration may have had an undue command influence over the proceedings, a possibility that has been compounded by the fact that Judge Lind was given a promotion while the trial was underway. As the Washington Post reported last month, “Lind has already been informed that she will take up a new position, as a judge on the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals, when the Manning trial ends.”
Attorney Michael Ratner said that he found the promotion “pretty extraordinary” considering the context of the case and the possible conflicts of interest involved.
“I don’t know whether it’s—I don’t think it’s necessarily illegal,” he said, “but it does—it’s interesting to me that she’s going upstairs during the very trial that’s going on, and given that promotion.”
Lind’s promotion raises the possibility of whether there may have been a quid pro quo. Is it possible that she was promised the appellate court job contingent upon her decisions in the Manning case? This, of course, speaks to the question of judicial impartiality and independence, key components of international fair trial standards. As the Lawyers Committee explains,
Independence presupposes a separation of powers in which the judiciary is institutionally protected from undue influence by, or interference from, the executive branch and, to a lesser degree, from the legislative branch. …
While independence primarily rests on mechanisms aimed at ensuring a court’s position externally, impartiality refers to its conduct of, and bearing on, the final outcome of a specific case. Bias (or a lack thereof) is the overriding criterion for ascertaining a court’s impartiality. It can, thus, be prima facie called into question when a judge has taken part in the proceedings in some prior capacity, or when s/he is related to the parties, or when s/he has a personal stake in the proceedings. It is also open to suspicion when the judge has an evidently preformed opinion that could weigh in on the decision-making or when there are other reasons giving rise to concern about his/her impartiality.
Another key component of international fair trial standards is the right to a speedy trial as outlined in 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.
Despite this requirement, Manning spent his entire pre-trial period of three years in jail. This, despite the fact that the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations has held that confinement of more than six months is incompatible with the ICCPR.
Manning’s mistreatment during that unlawful pre-trial detention was also a cause for concern, with his prolonged solitary confinement regime “constitut[ing] 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.
The treatment, which included prolonged solitary confinement, forced nudity and denial of meaningful exercise or work opportunities, also constituted a breach of the ICCPR, 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.”
Another issue that arose during Manning’s court-martial, raising questions of whether it abided by international standards, was the lack of transparency that surrounded many aspects of the case.
Article 14 of the ICCPR provides for the right to a fair and public hearing, but Manning’s court martial was surrounded by secrecy and security, with Judge Lind and the military declining to even release official transcripts of the proceedings.
Many other documents were withheld or heavily redacted and significant portions of the sentencing testimony against Manning were closed to the public. Because of this, it remains unknown what damage the government claims that he caused by sending classified material to WikiLeaks.
His supporters maintain that Manning was acting in the public interest, but the court secrecy means that there is little public evidence about whether his leaks on balance helped or hurt the world.
“The public’s ability to understand the sentence is going to be permanently impaired by that fact that, unfortunately, there are large pieces of this that are going to be off the public record,” said Eugene Fidell, a visiting professor in military law at Yale Law School. “There are going to be missing pieces of the jigsaw puzzle.”
With a potential 90-year prison sentence being handed down by Judge Lind this week and the possibility of a long-term campaign for his freedom, it’s worth remembering that Manning’s rights have been violated every step of the way and that the U.S. has systematically abrogated fundamental components of international fair trial standards.