Bradley Manning lawyer asks hearing officer to step aside


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The Independent US

The civilian lawyer for Private Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of leaking classified documents published by WikiLeaks, has asked the presiding officer at his pre-trial hearing to step aside.

Lt Col Paul Almanza's civilian occupation as a Justice Department prosecutor was the chief reason defence lawyer David Coombs gave in asking him to stand aside.

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation targeting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

Manning, 23, is charged with aiding the enemy by leaking hundreds of thousands of secret documents that ended up on the website. At the time, he was a low-level intelligence analyst in Baghdad.

The case has spawned an international movement in support of Manning, who is seen by anti-war activists as a hero who helped expose American mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To others he is a villain, even a traitor, who betrayed his oath of loyalty by deliberately spilling his government's secrets.

Almanza said he has not formed an opinion about Manning's guilt or innocence.

Today's hearing is to determine whether Manning will face a court-martial. If his case goes to trial and he is convicted, Manning could face life in prison. The government has said it would not seek the death penalty.

Dressed in his camouflage Army fatigues, Manning sat at the defence table showing little expression.

The hearing at Fort Meade, Maryland, is open to the public, but with limited seating. A small number of reporters were present but not allowed to record or photograph the proceedings.

A US military legal expert told reporters shortly before the proceedings began that the presiding officer is likely to make his recommendation on whether to court-martialManning within eight days after the hearing ends. The hearing is expected to last over the weekend and possibly well into next week.

The legal expert, who could not be named, said Manning is to be present for all proceedings, including sessions closed to the public for consideration of classified material.

The site of the hearing, Fort Meade, is home to US Cyber Command, the organisation whose mission includes protecting computer networks like the one Manning allegedly breached by illegally downloading huge numbers of classified documents in Iraq.

Manning's lawyer said that the documents' release did little actual harm.

Last month, 54 members of the European Parliament signed a letter to the US government raising concerns about Manning's 18-month pre-trial confinement.

Manning's supporters planned to maintain a vigil during the hearing and were organising a rally for Saturday.

A US grand jury is weighing whether to indict Assange on espionage charges, and WikiLeaks is straining under an American financial embargo.

The materials Manning is accused of leaking include hundreds of thousands of sensitive items: Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, State Department cables and a classified military video of a 2007 American helicopter attack in Iraq that killed 11 men, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver.

Manning, who turns 24 on Saturday, was detained in Iraq in May 2010 and moved to a Marine Corps brig at Quantico, Virginia, in July. Nine months later, the Army sent him to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after a series of claims by Manning of unlawful pre-trial punishment.

When it filed formal charges against Manning in March 2011, the Army accused him of using unauthorised software on government computers to extract classified information, illegally download it and transmit the data for public release by what the Army termed "the enemy."