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WikiLeaks: Bradley Manning makes first appearance before army court

BRADLEY Manning, the American soldier accused of handing WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of secret military documents and diplomatic cables, will appear in court for the first time today.

More than a year and a half after he was arrested by the US Army in Iraq, Private Manning will face a military court outside Washington, where his lawyers will challenge the 36 charges made against him.

The Article 32 hearing, the military's equivalent to a pre-trial court appearance, is being held at Fort Meade in Maryland, a sprawling Army base that is home to the National Security Agency, the organisation tasked with keeping America's secrets safe.

The most serious charge he faces is "aiding the enemy", an offence which can carry the death penalty, although military prosecutors have indicated they would only seek life imprisonment for the young soldier who turns 24 on Saturday.

Private Manning is accused of using CDs to download thousands of files from a secure military network that he had access to while stationed in Iraq and then giving them over to Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks, who published them online and shared them with a number of media organisations including the Daily Telegraph.

Among the files, considered the largest intelligence leak in American history, were secret assessments of foreign leaders by US diplomats, logs from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and video footage showing an airstrike in Iraq in which Army helicopters killed two journalists.

Private Manning was arrested after a computer hacker he spoke to online approached the FBI and showed them chat logs where the soldier described how releasing the data could lead to "worldwide discussion, debates and reforms".

For almost a year he was held in virtual solitary confinement at a Marine base in Virginia, where his treatment was protested by Amnesty International and the UN chief investigator on torture.

His civilian defence lawyer, David Coomb, is expected to argue that Private Manning was emotionally unstable at the time of his deployment to Iraq and should never have been given access to the secure network.

Earlier this year Mr Coomb submitted a request for 48 witnesses to appear at the hearing, including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of which only 10 military and law enforcement figures were approved.

The defence hoped to question Mrs Clinton about the impact of the leak on American foreign policy, while arguing that the President had jeopardised Private Manning's chance of a fair trial by saying he "broke the law" at a fundraiser earlier this year.

It is not clear whether Private Manning himself will speak at the hearing, which could last up to a week.

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