Bradley Manning faces 136-year jail sentence for leaking files
Bradley Manning, the US soldier who handed thousands of classified government files to WikiLeaks, faces spending the rest of his life in prison despite being acquitted of helping al-Qaeda in its struggle against America.
The 25-year-old was found guilty on Tuesday of espionage and more than a dozen other charges which together could result in a jail sentence of more than 100 years for the largest leak in US history.
However, in a blow for the American government, he was acquitted of aiding the enemy, the most serious charge against him. Prosecutors had argued that Osama bin Laden used the leaked documents to hatch plots against America.
Manning’s supporters, who view him as a whistle-blower who exposed the true nature of America’s wars in the Middle East, said the military judge had stepped back from setting a “dangerous precedent” with her verdict.
Campaigners said it also offered hope to future whistle-blowers as the judge appeared to reject arguments that leaking to a media outlet could aid al-Qaeda.
Dressed in his dark blue military uniform, Manning showed no emotion as the verdict was read and his supporters in the sparse military courtroom remained silent throughout the five-minute hearing.
Manning’s family said in a statement that he “never intended to help America’s enemies in any way”.
“Brad loves his country and was proud to wear its uniform,” they said.
The soldier waived his right to a jury trial and his fate was decided by Col Denise Lind, the military judge who presided over his court martial at Fort Meade, a military base outside Washington.
She cleared Manning of aiding the enemy, but convicted him of six counts of violating the Espionage Act, five counts of theft and several other minor counts. The 20 charges of which he was convicted or pleaded guilty could result in a total of up to 136 years in prison. The court will begin sentencing today and it could be weeks before Manning learns his fate.
“It’s a relief that Bradley Manning wasn’t convicted of aiding the enemy for his sake and for our country’s because it doesn’t set a dangerous precedent,” said Nathan Fuller, a spokesman for the Bradley Manning support network.
“But it’s outrageous that he was convicted of any espionage counts and he faces potential decades in prison.” Kristinn Hrafnsson, a spokesman for WikiLeaks, said: “There is no room for optimism that the sentence may be lenient”.
Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder, on Tuesday night said he took no solace from the one acquittal. The only victim in the case had been the US government's "wounded pride", he told a news briefing inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London, where he has been holed up for over a year to avoid extradition to Sweden.
"This was never a fair trial," Mr Assange said. He criticised the treatment of Manning in custody, saying he had been stripped, caged and kept in isolation to "break him".
Mr Assange said Manning, with the backing of Wikileaks, would appeal the conviction, taking the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.
"WikiLeaks will not rest until he is free," he said.
Over eight weeks of testimony, prosecutors claimed Manning used his position as a junior intelligence analyst in Iraq to harvest 700,000 classified military and diplomatic files that he then turned over to the anti-secrecy website.
The court heard how he used blank CDs, including one labelled “Lady Gaga”, to systematically download videos, diplomatic files and military documents which he then passed on to WikiLeaks.
He was arrested in Iraq in May 2010 after confiding in Adrian Lamo, a hacker he met online, who turned him in to the FBI. “[Manning] was a determined soldier with a knowledge, ability, and desire to harm the United States in its war effort,” said Maj Ashden Fein, for the prosecution. “He was not a whistle-blower; he was a traitor.” Manning’s defence team argued that the soldier, who was 22 at the time of the leaks, was “young, naive, but good-intentioned”. They said he was deeply disturbed by what he saw in Iraq.
Manning did not dispute that he was responsible for the leaks and in February he pleaded guilty to 10 lesser charges. In a previous hearing, he cast himself as a whistle-blower who wanted to expose the “bloodlust” of US forces in the Middle East. “I felt I had accomplished something that allowed me to have a clear conscience,” he said.
The sentencing will not bring an end to legal proceedings that first began at Fort Meade in 2011. The case will almost certainly be appealed to a higher military court and reach the US Supreme Court. “This is going to go on for years. We have not seen the last of Manning,” said Eugene R Fidell, an expert in military law at Yale Law School. The proceedings in Maryland have been closely watched by Julian Assange, WikiLeak’s founder, from the Ecuadorian embassy in London, who is fighting extradition to Sweden on sex charges.
“We call those people — who are prepared to risk being a martyr for all of the rest of us — we call those people heroes,” Mr Assange said on CNN before the verdict. “Bradley Manning is a hero.”