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A coalition of news organisations and the lawyer of Julian Assange have each written a letter to the U.S. Government requesting that documents pertaining to Bradley Manning’s court-martial trial be made public, Courthouse News Service reports.Documents and information filed in the Manning case are not available to the public anywhere and there has been no prior notice of issues to be litigated in the case, raising serious First Amendment concerns.
Manning, 24, has been held in pretrial detention since May 2010 on suspicion that he sent WikiLeaks hundreds of thousands of files that included global diplomatic cables, incident reports from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and footage of a July 12, 2007, Baghdad air strike that killed 11 people (including two Reuters journalists).
He is charged with charged with 22 counts, including aiding the enemy.
Manning stepped into a court for the first time last December in Fort Meade, Md., in an Article 32 hearing (i.e. the military equivalent of a grand jury). On February 23 he deferred a plea in a military court arraignment, marking the first step in the court-martial that could land him in prison for life.
The government has not released motions, rulings and transcripts of any of the proceedings.
The coalition of 40 news organisations sent a letter with the subject line “Re: Access to records in the court-martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning” to Pentagon lawyer Jeh Johnson that raised the concerns:
Supreme Court and the nation’s highest military courts have said the American press and public have a First Amendment right of access to criminal proceedings. But by refusing to provide reasonable and proper notice of such proceedings and the nature of the documents filed in connection therewith, the military justice system has severely undercut this foundational tenet of American democracy.
The coalition includes ABC News, The Associated Press, Bloomberg News, CBS News, NBC News, New York Daily News, The New York Times, Newsweek/Daily Beast, NPR, POLITICO, Reuters News, Time, Tribune Company, USA TODAY and The Washington Post.
The letter refers to a similar group of news organisations that appealed to the defence Department for better access to important information about military commission proceedings held at Guantánamo Bay.
In response the government created a website that contains documents filed in the proceedings, established a viewing location at Fort Meade that allows the press and public to watch a closed-circuit broadcast of the hearings, and adopted of updated regulations governing the commissions.
The government even started a new process whereby the press may object to the designation of information as “protected” (and thereby shielded from public view).
The letter points out that U.S. journalists covering Manning’s military trial face at least the same degree of secrecy that made reporting on Guantánamo proceedings incredibly difficult:
As such, the coalition respectfully urges the government to implement similar reforms in its regulations governing court-martial proceedings generally and that of Manning specifically to ensure that military personnel tried stateside have the same rights to a public trial as those afforded accused terrorists.
According to U.S. law, a military member accused of criminal misconduct is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty at a trial by court-martial.
centre of Constitutional Rights lawyer Michael Ratner, counsel for WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, wrote a three-page letter (with the same subject line) to military judge Colonel Denise R. Lind to point out that the way the case is being handled contradicts U.S. law:
As the Manning court martial purports to be a public trial, we cannot understand why critical aspects of the proceedings are being withheld from public view. As Circuit Judge Damon Keith wrote in Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, 303 F.3d 681, 683 (6th Cir. 2002): “Democracies die behind closed doors.” We urge the Court to take the action required by military law and the Constitution and make these documents available.
He posits that the fairness of the proceedings have already been called into doubt by recent findings by United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, that Pfc. Manning suffered cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment – if not torture – during an 11-month period of solitary pretrial confinement in Kuwait and at a Marine Corps base in Quantico, Va.
During eight months in Virginia, Manning was held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day and made to strip naked at night because the elastic on his underwear could be used to harm himself.
More than 250 of the most eminent U.S. legal scholars subsequently sent a letter President Obama in protest, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief spokesman P.J. Crowley resigned after he publicly denounced the treatment as “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”
Manning was moved to Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in April of last year.
Ratner ended the letter with a request that the Court order the disclosure of all documents and information filed in the Manning case (as well as implement procedures similar to those used in regards to Guantánamo Bay):
We respectfully request that the Court enter such an order, or otherwise respond to this request, by Friday, March 30, 2012, in order to allow WikiLeaks and Mr. Assange to seek any further judicial relief that may be necessary to protect their rights and the rights of the media and the general public.
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