Army Private Bradley Manning, accused of leaking classified U.S. diplomatic cables to whistle-blower website WikiLeaks, declined to a enter a plea in a military court arraignment hearing held at the Fort Meade military base in Maryland on Thursday.
Manning, however, was formally charged with 22 counts, including aiding the enemy, wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the internet knowing that it is accessible to the enemy, theft of public property or records, transmitting defense information as well as fraud and related activity in connection with computers.
Although the charge of aiding the enemy qualifies as a capital offense, prosecutors have said that they will not seek death penalty for the defendant. However, Manning faces life in prison if convicted of the charges at his court martial.
During Thursday's proceedings, Manning was read out the charges against him. Manning then told the judge that he understood the charges and his rights to counsel. Nevertheless, he deferred his plea as well his decision on whether to be tried by a military jury or a single judge.
Manning is allowed to defer his plea until the beginning of his military trial, which experts believe is unlikely to kick off before August. Following Manning's decision to defer his plea, the judge Colonel Denise Lind set another procedural hearing for March 15.
Earlier, Manning's lawyer David Coombs had brought up his client's due process rights during the day's proceedings, and stated that he would object if the trial fails to begin by June. Coombs said the U.S. government had indicated that the trial will not begin until August 3, noting that his client would have spent more than 800 days in prison until then.
The developments come just over a month after the investigating officer who conducted Manning's military hearing recommended in January that the accused be subjected to a court martial on the multiple charges pressed against him.
During the pre-trial hearings in December, defense lawyers had portrayed Manning as a troubled young man with gender identity issues. The defense team also accused superiors of failing to provide proper counseling to their client and take disciplinary action or revoke his security clearance. They also requested the investigating officer to drop all but three charges that have the potential to fetch Manning a total of 30 years in prison.
However, the prosecution argued that Manning should be given the maximum punishment as he had used his training "to use multiple intelligence systems" to defy the trust the military had bestowed on him. It was stressed that Manning's actions had made classified information "accessible to the enemies of our nation."
Manning, a former intelligence analyst, was arrested in Iraq in May 2010 and placed in military custody at a high-security military prison at Quantico marine base, Virginia. He was later moved to a lower-security prison at Fort Leavenworth, following criticism about the conditions under which he was being kept after his arrest.
Manning is accused of leaking 720,000 classified U.S. military and diplomatic documents while serving as a U.S. Army intelligence analyst in Iraq. He was first charged with 12 counts of downloading a secret video of a U.S. military operation as well as classified military and diplomatic files and cables without authorization and allegedly sharing them with WikiLeaks. He was later slapped with 22 charges in March 2011.
Wikileaks founder Julian Assange is currently fighting a possible extradition from Britain to Sweden over charges of sexual misconduct. The Australian claims that the case is part of a smear campaign aimed at discrediting his controversial website and is politically motivated.
The developments came after WikiLeaks, a website that publishes leaked classified information online, released some 250,000 classified cables sent from U.S. Embassies around the world to several newspapers, embarrassing Washington in the diplomatic front.
by RTT Staff Writer
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