Freedom on trial

The trial of US military intelligence analyst Bradley Manning for leaking 700,000 US diplomatic cables and other secret documents to WikiLeaks has begun. Manning faces 22 charges, including aiding the enemy and violating the Espionage Act, crimes for which he could be punished with a life sentence.

Manning’s actions – he has admitted to transmitting classified information to WikiLeaks but not to aiding the enemy – have polarised America, indeed the world. His critics accuse him of being a traitor, who abetted the al Qaeda and other ‘enemies of the free world’ by providing them information. To others he is a hero, whose disclosure of documents has laid bare the true nature of the US’ war on Afghanistan and Iraq. Cables and documents exchanged between the US government and unpopular Arab dictators revealed cosy partnerships that fuelled public rage in these countries.

Manning’s trial is not so much about establishing his guilt – we know he broke US law and also, he has pleaded guilty on most charges. The trial will tell us whether he knew he was harming US interests and aiding the enemy. But more importantly, this trial will test the depth of US democracy and the quality of its justice systems. Is the US capable of ensuring a fair trial to a man who dared to speak truth to power? Early signs indicate that it is not. Parts of the trial will be closed to the public, which means that the government will continue to privilege opacity over transparency. What is more, the government’s treatment of Manning during the three-year pre-trial period — a UN Special Rapporteur on Torture observed that the US government was culpable of “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment” in keeping Manning in solitary confinement even before his conviction – suggests that securing Manning’s rights will not be a priority. It doesn’t bode well.

The US government will use Manning’s trial to send out a strong message to future whistleblowers: if you dare to lay bare the US’ dirty dealings, expect to be silenced or put away for a long, long time. Indeed, The Manning trial is an important turning point in US history. Civil liberties are at stake. The American people must wake up to the real issues underlying Manning’s trial. Their democracy is in a state of acute crisis.

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