The trial against US soldier Bradley Manning has opened. He's accused of passing classified material to WikiLeaks. If convicted, he could face life in prison, but his supporters haven’t given up hope.
"I think he's a hero," 24-year-old Heather Linebaugh said about US Army Private Bradley Manning. "I think without him releasing these documents people wouldn't have seen what's actually happening in the war." Linebaugh was one of hundreds of protesters who gathered outside the barracks in Fort Meade, north of the US capital, Washington, D.C., on Saturday afternoon (01.06.2013) to demonstrate their support for Manning. In the blazing heat they shouted slogans like "Release Bradley Manning," "Truth is on our side" and "Bradley Manning is no traitor."
The 25-year-old soldier is accused of downloading hundreds of thousands of secret army and State Department documents, and leaking them to Wikileaks publisher Julian Assange while stationed in Iraq in 2010. He is charged with 22 offenses, including espionage and aiding the enemy.
If found guilty, he could face a life sentence. In 10 of the 22 offenses he has already pleaded guilty - enough for a 20-year prison term. But he denies accusations of espionage and of aiding the enemy. He passed on diplomatic cables and secret documents connected with the US Army missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. And he leaked a video which shows a helicopter attack by US soldiers on civilians in Iraq. Two journalists were among those killed in the attack.
Waiting three years for trial
Heather Linebaugh used to have the same job as Bradley Manning. As an information analyst she assessed videos and logs of drones between the years 2009 and 2012, the young woman with the long black hair said. She left the Air Force as a senior airman in March 2012 and is now enrolled as a political science student.
"Everyone who has ever done the job with the drones has witnessed killing and death on both sides," she said. "We've witnessed convoy explosions; we've witnessed losing our own troops to the war."
The video Manning helped publish, she said, showed the reality of the Iraq war and was proof that innocent people and civilians have fallen victim to it.
"He risked so much for us," said Nathan Fuller, the spokesman of the support network for Bradley Manning, who organized the demonstration in Fort Meade. "He risked his life and liberty to inform us about what our government's doing in secret. We think that risk deserves our support and he needs our defense."
Bradley Manning has been waiting for his trial to begin for three years. He spent almost one year in isolation, and sometimes he was stripped of his clothes. The presiding judge in the case has already ruled that 112 days would be taken off his sentence if he is found guilty. Out at Fort Meade, Manning's supporters believe that is by far not enough.
'Embarrassing for the government'
Among the demonstrators at Fort Meade is Daniel Ellsberg. According to him, the strict treatment of Manning by the US Army is reason enough to put an end to the trial. 82-year-old Ellsberg gained fame in the early 1970s for publishing the so-called Pentagon papers - secret US government documents, which proved that the administration knew early on it could not win the Vietnam war and that it would lead to considerably more victims than they were willing to admit in public.
Ellsberg was formally charged, too, but since he was a civilian his case wasn't dealt with by a military court. His trial was stopped after the US government commissioned a burglary at his doctor's practice. "I identify with Bradley Manning very much," he said. "No actual evidence has been presented showing any harm to American troops, or anyone else. There's certainly a lot of embarrassment."
"Compared to the violations of international law and the war crimes that the Bush administration perpetrated – with impunity I might add - I think Bradley has done us all a great favor," argues Peter Swords.
Swords, a social worker, is a member of the Syracuse Peace Council. Like many others he took the bus to get to Fort Meade on Saturday. Many here have regularly joined rallies against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years. They are now curious to know just how much they are actually going to hear about the trial. Coverage is difficult. The court doesn't allow video or sound recordings and cell phone use will be restricted when the trial opens on Monday.
Vigils for the national hero
That's why Nathan Fuller has come to Fort Meade once a month for a week in the past year. He sits in the hearings, he takes notes and publishes his transcripts. The army, he said, "is keeping transcripts, rulings and motions withheld from the press and public. We have to counteract that by creating our own transcripts." Many protesters complain that, in their view, Bradley Manning's case is receiving too little coverage in the American media.
Supporting Bradley Manning has become a full-time job for 24-year-old Fuller. The trial is scheduled to go on for 12 weeks. Supporters are planning a vigil for Bradley Manning on Monday, when the trial begins. "We hope to keep up the vigils, the rallies and support throughout the summer," said Fuller. "The trial is supposed to last until mid-August." To keep interest and momentum going, demonstrators have said they will organize events throughout June and July.