WikiLeaks informant Bradley Manning in court

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To one person a hero, to another a lunatic endangering the state: the American soldier Bradley Manning. This week he stands before the military court at Fort George G Meade in Maryland for accusations of passing on hundreds of thousands of military and diplomatic documents to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks during his stay in Iraq .

Mr Manning was arrested in May 2010, after the hacker he had taken into his confidence handed him over to the authorities. The 24-year-old American soldier who served as an intelligence specialist is accused of, among other things, endangering state security. His most sensational revelation was the so-called Collateral Murder video which shows how a US military helicopter over Baghdad shot at a group of civilians. Among the eleven victims were two journalists from Reuters.

Mr Manning is also accused of passing on 260,000 diplomatic posts or cables to WikiLeaks.

It is generally assumed that the prosecutor will demand life in prison. The leak is the largest in American military history.

Military judgment
Mr Manning is appearing before a military court. Ultimately, the jury must come to a decision. But how unprejudiced can a military jury be in its verdict of a former colleague, asks Terry Gill, professor of military law in Amsterdam.

"They will of course receive instructions. They should base their judgments on sound evidence in all parts of the indictment. If something is lacking, a verdict of innocent is, in principle, possible. But it's true that the fact that he is being tried by the military, the reputation he has within the service as a soldier and the impression he makes will have a significant impact on the outcome. "

According to Mr Gill, a lot hangs on how Mr Manning presents himself during the trial. If he gives the impression of being a calculating spy who deliberately wanted to cause harm, the punishment will be greater than if it appears he was unable to understand his actions' consequences.
The question central to the trial is whether there's any justification for Mr Manning's actions or, for that matter, a legal requirement to honour it, says Dutch lawyer Bart Stapert. Mr Stapert specializes in human rights and American law. So far, the defence has paid much attention to Mr Manning's personal life.

"Supporters of Manning and WikiLeaks always insist that this can be justified, even if he did it deliberately. It was important information that should not be kept away from the public. I think that line is legally difficult to follow in this lawsuit. And so the defence case rests on the personal circumstances of Manning."

His lawyers and human rights activists complained repeatedly about his "inhuman" prison regime. Since April last year, Mr Manning has been held in another prison with a slighly more flexible regime. According to Mr Stapert, a military tribunal is unlikely to take that into account.

Julian Assange
American military researchers found the phone number of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on Mr Manning's computer. Mr Assange has never cited him as a source, though has expressed support for Mr Manning. This relationship could prove important in the future, says Mr Stapert. The Americans are intent on achieving Mr Assange's extradition. To get a reduced sentence, Mr Manning could at some point testify against him.

Severe regime
The lawsuit concerning the American soldier is receiving worldwide attention, not least because it is so far the only one of the voluminous WikiLeaks cases to come to court. But many more people were involved, says Mr Stapert. 

"What I find harrowing is that a lot of other people have used WikiLeaks information. Reputable newspapers have also used it to increase their circulation, so they have benefitted from the information. Although everyone is devouring it, it's also just juicy information for anyone involved in foreign policy concerns. But Bradley Manning gets the full weight of government on his head because this has come out. That's hardly fair, and a fair-minded judge would have to consider that."

The American public doesn't know what to make of the matter. To some, he's a traitor. Others see him as a frustrated homosexual who has suffered an identity crisis spurred on by the US Army's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy. He is adored by those who praise him for daring to bring to light US war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Early this week, the former intelligence specialist was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. A group of Icelandic parliamentarians asked for the nomination to focus attention on the precarious legal position of whistleblowers.