Wikileaks Suspect Bradley Manning Testifies about Inhumane Prison Treatment
Bradley Manning, the US Army private accused of leaking classified military and diplomatic material to the whistleblowing website Wikileaks, appeared at a pretrial hearing at Ft. Meade, Maryland on Thursday, where he testified about his imprisonment in Kuwait and in a Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia.
David Coombs, Manning’s defense attorney, questioned the accused Wikileaker for more than six hours. What emerged from Manning’s testimony was a picture of inhumane and sometimes sadistic treatment that the United Nations and the Red Cross claimed bordered on torture. The more Manning protested against the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, the more those conditions worsened as his jailers determined that his behavior was indicative of a suicide risk.
Manning began his testimony by recounting a mental breakdown he suffered shortly after his May 2010 arrest and initial imprisonment at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. The Army private was apprehended on suspicion of downloading hundreds of thousands of pages of government and military information, much of it classified, from secure military computers and passing it to the whistleblower website Wikileaks. Among the material allegedly leaked by Manning were files detailing US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, the so-called Iraq and Afghan War Logs, as well as documents showing that 150 innocent men were locked up in the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
The 22-year old soldier was terrified. “I didn’t know what was going on,” he testified. “I didn’t have formal charges or anything, my interactions were very limited with anybody else, so it was very draining.”
“My nights blended into my days and my days into nights,” he said, recalling 10:00 p.m. wake-ups and 2:00 p.m. lights-out orders.
But the worst part was being kept in maddening solitary confinement, a form of punishment that has been found to be as traumatic as physical torture and therefore has been banned under the Geneva Conventions as “cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment.”
“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who spent years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam in isolation. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment,” added the former US airman who was horrifically tortured by his captors.
“I began to really deteriorate,” Manning said of his time in solitary. “I was anxious all the time; everything became more insular… I was starting to fall apart.”
Military police entered Manning’s cell in a tent in the scorching Kuwaiti desert two or three times a day to do unnerving “shakedowns.” During one such search, MPs found a noose Manning had fashioned out of bedsheets. One day the MPs found him screaming incoherently and bashing his head against the cell wall.
“My world just shrank to Camp Arifjan and then my cage,” Manning said of his breakdown. “I remember thinking: I’m going to die. I’m stuck here and I’m going to die in an animal cage.”
“I didn’t want to die, but I wanted to get out of the cage,” he testified, telling the court how he told the camp psychiatrist that he was thinking about killing himself.
“I conveyed to him that if I could be successful in committing suicide, I would,” he said.
Manning was prescribed anti-depression and anti-anxiety drugs and placed on suicide watch. But he was feeling much better by the time he was transferred stateside to the Marine Corps brig in Quantico, Virginia at the end of July.
“It wasn’t the ideal environment in Quanitco,” Manning said, eliciting laughter from the people gathered in the courtroom. It definitely wasn’t– he was kept in a 6’x8′ (180cm by 240cm) cell which barely held his diminutive 5’2″ frame. There was no natural sunlight, only “the reflection of a reflection” of a skylight by which he could catch a glimpse of sunlight “if you angled your face on the door of the cell.”
“But it had air conditioning, solid floors, hot and cold running water. It was great to be on continental United States soil again,” Manning said.
But Manning was treated harshly by his new Marine Corps jailers, and he was placed on suicide watch once again. He was constantly watched over by guards– he couldn’t even use the toilet without them closely monitoring him, and he wasn’t given any toilet paper so every time he wanted to wipe his ass he had to ask permission from a guard. He was also deprived of pillows and sheets because guards feared he would try to kill himself if he had them.
Manning was allowed only 20 minutes outside his cell every day for the first few weeks of his imprisonment at Quantico. Even on these precious “sunshine calls” he was shackled in full restraints and could not even walk without his guards’ assistance.
Nights were the worst, Manning recounted. Due to his suicide watch status, he was constantly watched, with a bright light outside his cell making it very difficult for him to sleep. Even when he did manage to doze off, guards woke him up multiple times each night.
Manning was also forbidden from exercising in his tiny cell. But he found ways around that. “I would practice various dance moves,” he told the court, because “dancing wasn’t unauthorized as exercise.”
Boredom was a huge problem. Manning dealt with it by coming up with creative ways to keep his mind engaged in order to remain sane. He would play peek-a-boo with his guards and make funny faces in the mirror, activities which were wrongly interpreted by his jailers as evidence that he was out of his mind and suicidal.
Even though three Quantico psychiatrists told the court that Manning was of sound mind and no suicide risk and recommended that he be placed on a less restrictive regimen, his jailers continued to impose harsh detention conditions. Manning appealed to the brig commander for mercy, but to no avail.
He also tried to convince one staff sergeant who he mistakenly felt was sympathetic to his plight that he should be given more freedom.
“I wanted to convey the fact that I’d been on [restriction] for a long time,” he testified. “I’m not doing anything to harm myself… If I was a danger to myself I would act out more. If I really wanted to hurt myself I could use things now: underwear, flip-flops– they could potentially be used as something to harm oneself.”
Manning had unknowingly put his foot in his mouth. Quantico staff twisted his words, interpreting them as a threat to harm himself. That night, he was ordered to strip off his clothes and was left naked the entire night. The following morning, he was forced to stand naked at attention outside his cell during brig count and inspection.
One guard even wrote a sadistic rhyme, based on Dr, Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham,” to mock Manning’s lack of underwear:
“I can wear them in a box,
I can wear them with a fox,
I can wear them in the day,
I can wear them so I say,
But I can’t wear them at night,
My comments gave the staff a fright.”
When Coombs, Manning’s lawyer, asked former Quantico commander Daniel Choike if he thought the “subject of the removal of [Manning’s] underwear was a joking matter, Choike replied “no.”
Choike, who was questioned by Coombs in the court on Wednesday, also said that he warned his superior officer that Manning should not be held in Quantico for a long period of time.
“I didn’t feel that PFC Manning should be detained more than 90 days in the brig,” Choike said.
But Manning ended up spending nine months at Quantico, part of his 917 days in US military custody without a trial.
Manning, who faces 22 charges including the capital offense of “aiding the enemy,” has agreed to plead guilty to eight of them. Coombs, who revealed the plea deal last month, said that the arrangement allows Manning to take responsibility for leaking classified US information to Wikileaks. The presiding military judge in the case, Army Col. Denise Lind, accepted the terms of the plea bargain, under which Manning could face a maximum of 16 years behind bars instead of 72 years as previously stated.
Under the terms of the deal, Manning would admit to sending the Iraq and Afghanistan War logs, as well as other material, to Wikileaks. And even though Manning struck a plea deal, the government may still prosecute him for “aiding the enemy,” for which he could be punished with a life prison sentence.
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