PFC Bradley Manning court martial: Human rights, civil liberties & free press advocates express concern over ‘dangerous’ precedent set by Manning’s conviction on espionage charges

Court room sketch of PFC Bradley Manning (left), Judge Col. Denise Lind (middle), and civilian defense attorney David Coombs (right). SOURCE: The Pentagon Channel / William Hennessy.

PFC Bradley Manning’s conviction on six Espionage Act charges for leaking classified records to WikiLeaks sets a “dangerous” precedent in the treatment of whistleblowers and impedes the ability of journalists to investigate abuses and hold government accountable, according to human rights, civil liberties, and free press advocates.

Although Manning was acquitted of the “aiding the enemy” charge, thereby sparing him a life sentence without the possibility of parole, the 25-year-old former Army intelligence analyst is facing up to 136 years in prison.

Read more: PFC Bradley Manning acquitted of “aiding the enemy” but found guilty of Espionage Act, theft & computer fraud charges

“It’s not hard to draw the conclusion that Manning’s trial was about sending a message: the U.S. government will come after you, no holds barred, if you’re thinking of revealing evidence of its unlawful behavior,” according to a statement issued by Amnesty International.

The six espionage charges alone could send Manning away for up to 60 years.

Human Rights Watch pointed out that the government “did not have to prove that the [leaked] information actually harmed national security”, and the judge did not take into consideration whether Manning released the classified information in the public’s interest when convicting him of the Espionage Act charges.

“The antiquated law fails to protect both the public’s right to information and the speaker’s right to disclose matters of pressing public interest,” according to Human Rights Watch.

Read more: Court Martial of Army Private First Class Bradley Manning

Both the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights issued statements criticizing the government for charging Manning with the Espionage Act.

“The Espionage Act itself is a discredited relic of the WWI era, created as a tool to suppress political dissent and antiwar activism, and it is outrageous that the government chose to invoke it in the first place against Manning. Government employees who blow the whistle on war crimes, other abuses and government incompetence should be protected under the First Amendment,” stated the Center for Constitutional Rights.

According to the ACLU, the prosecution’s decision to pursue the espionage charges even after Manning pleaded guilty to leaking classified information was a clear sign that “the government was seeking to intimidate anyone who might consider revealing valuable information in the future.”

Reporters Without Borders called the Manning verdict “a warning to all whistleblowers”.

“The conditions in which Manning has been held, his unfair trial and the lack of transparency during the hearings speak volumes about the fate reserved for whistleblowers and the way the rule of law is being flouted,” according to Reporters Without Borders. “It…threatens the future of investigative journalism, which risks finding its sources drying up.”

Amnesty International pointed out that while Manning is facing what could amount to a life sentence for exposing human rights abuses and wrongdoings by the U.S. government in Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and elsewhere abroad, the United States has refused to investigate those individuals who ordered or engaged in torture and other crimes exposed by the records Manning leaked.

“There’s a stunning contrast between the extraordinarily severe sentence Bradley Manning could receive and the leniency or complete impunity enjoyed by those responsible for the types of grave human rights he exposed,” said Widney Brown, Senior Director of International Law and Policy at Amnesty International. “While Manning could face more than a century behind bars, numerous high-level officials have never faced even the threat of investigations – in effect, they have been let off scot-free.”

Manning was found guilty this week on 20 charges – including the Espionage Act, theft of government property, and computer fraud – for releasing hundreds of thousands of classified government records to WikiLeaks.

The charged records include the Apache video depicting the killing of two Reuters employees and unarmed civilians by U.S. troops outside of Baghdad in 2007; Army’s investigation files on the 2009 Granai airstrike that killed more than 100 civilians – many of whom were women and children – in Farah Province, Afghanistan; 90,000 significant activities (SIGACT) reports filed by troops in Afghanistan; 380,000 SIGACTs filed by troops in Iraq; more than 700 Guantanamo detainee assessment briefs; more than 250,000 State Department diplomatic cables; and the email addresses of more than 70,000 U.S. service members in Iraq.


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