May 23, 2013
Julian Assange and a coalition of activists and journalists filed a lawsuit on Wednesday against the military judge overseeing Army Pfc. Bradley Manning’s trial in a bid to open access to the secretive proceedings.
During the trial both access to transcripts and prosecution and defense motions have been virtually inaccessible.
Bradley, who faces a life sentence over the leaking of more than 700,000 sensitive military documents published by Wikileaks, is currently being tried by a military tribunal. The trial is expected to begin on June 3, 2013.
The judge overseeing Manning’s court-martial announced this week that she will close portions of the trial to the public in order to protect classified material. Prosecutors are expected to call 150 witnesses to testify against Manning, while two dozen witnesses may be able to provide their testimony in closed sessions.
Shayana Kadidal, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights which is part of the legal challenge, described the effort as a last ditch attempt.
“If this lawsuit fails, Manning’s trial will take place under conditions where journalists and the public will be unable as a practical matter to follow what is going on in the courtroom,” says Kadidal.
“The federal civilian courts are now our last option,” she added.
Assange’s co-plaintiffs in the legal injunction include Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald, Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, and The Nation magazine. The coalition seeks to force the release of files currently being kept out of the public’s access.
The same group previously filed a similar lawsuit in military courts that was shot down in a 3-2 decision by the United States Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces last month. Now, they are hoping that the same legal request will fare better in a civilian court.
The group’s preliminary injunction is expected to be presented in front of a Maryland US District Court shortly after Manning’s trial begins in June.
Though the pretrial process has been opaque, prosecutors did say this week that they had agreed not to pursue a charge that Manning had violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which could potentially reduce any prison sentence by eight years. According to the Washington Post, prosecutors did not provide a reason for the recent shift.
Regardless, convictions for the more serious charges faced by Manning could still carry a sentence of life in prison.
Manning’s defense team attempted to block testimony from witnesses linked to alleged damage caused by the release of the leaked documents. Army Col. Denise Lind, overseeing the trial, disagreed, and ruled that the prosecution will have the option to call witnesses to provide both evidence and context of any collateral damage caused by the document leaks.
Lind did say, however, that the testimony would be limited so as to not have the trial “devolve into many trials regarding international politics in many regions of the world.”
Both activists and journalists that have been following Manning’s pretrial proceedings have accused the US military of undermining the legal process by preventing access.
“The culture of extreme secrecy that has defined both the Bush and Obama presidencies does a disservice to our democratic society. By unnecessarily cloaking these proceedings from public view or scrutiny, the government is undermining the most basic principles of transparency and freedom of the press, both of which are vital components of the democratic and judicial process,” said journalist Jeremy Scahill, national security correspondent for The Nation.