The Plight of Bradley Manning

Thursday 3 February 2011

For the last seven months, Bradley Manning has spent 23 hours every day in a prison cell six feet wide and twelve feet in length.

The 23-year-old soldier, who stands accused of leaking classified military documents on a historic scale, has not yet received so much as a preliminary hearing and remains subject to a strict Prevention of Injury (POI) order against the advice of military psychiatrists. Unlike other prisoners in the Quantico military brig where he is being held, as a result of his POI order Manning is not allowed contact with other detainees and is not permitted to exercise in his cell. For one hour every day he is taken to an empty room for exercise time where he can walk but not run. He does not have a pillow or sheets in his cell and when he goes to sleep, he is required to strip down to his underwear and surrender his clothing to the guards.

The brutal treatment of the young soldier, who has not been convicted of any offence, has been described by Amnesty International as “unnecessarily severe”, “inhumane” and “repressive”. It is widely believed US authorities are treating him harshly to obtain a plea bargain that implicates WikiLeaks’ editor-in-chief Julian Assange as a co-conspirator. But there is a twist to this tale. Bradley Manning is a dual UK-US citizen under the right afforded to him by jus sanguinis. His mother is Welsh and his father American; he was born in Oklahoma though sat his GCSEs at a Welsh secondary school. He should therefore be entitled to consular assistance.

As according to a guide issued by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) called “Support for British Nationals”, the UK would not normally offer consular support to dual citizens unless the citizen is a minor, facing a capital sentence, or if “having looked at the circumstances of the case, we [the FCO] consider that there is a special humanitarian reason to do so.”

Manning is not a minor, and nor is he facing a capital sentence (though some prominent US politicians have called for a treason charge, which could result in the death penalty) but his situation is certainly of serious humanitarian concern. Given the severity of Amnesty International’s condemnation of Manning’s treatment, and the additional involvement of the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture, it seems clear that Manning has a “special humanitarian” case. A spokesperson for the FCO said that they could not comment on individual cases, however confirmed that “in instances of mistreatment, we would potentially look to intervene.”

According to Professor Philippe Sands QC, author of Torture Team: Cruelty, Deception and the Compromise of Law and one of the world’s leading experts on international law, the UK could be obligated to help Manning. Sands said: “If he [Manning] is a British national he is entitled to expect the British authorities to ensure that his minimum rights under international law are respected.”

And though the UK may wish to keep a distance from Bradley Manning for political reasons, UK authorities – whether they like it or not – were implicated in the investigation from the beginning. In July last year, shortly after Manning was charged, American ‘officials’ reported to be F.B.I agents made an unannounced visit to the Welsh home of Bradley Manning’s mother, Susan. Accompanied by a Detective Sergeant from Dyfed-Powys police force, they are believed to have searched Bradley’s old bedroom. Earlier this week Dyfed-Powys police would not confirm or deny this – saying only that they “facilitated a request from an American agency to accompany them as they conducted their investigation last year.”

It appears then that while UK authorities have been happy to comply with the Americans on UK soil as they seek evidence to prosecute Manning, they remain reluctant to get involved in an issue that has the potential to put serious strain on the notorious “special relationship.”

For one concerned UK citizen, however, silence is simply not an option. 31-year-old Naomi Colvin read an article by American lawyer Glenn Greenwald on the treatment of Manning, and upon discovering he had dual UK-US citizenship decided that she had to take action. Colvin, who works in publishing and lives in London, promptly started a campaign called UK Friends of Bradley Manning.

“The simple truth is that I ... felt obliged to start this campaign out of pure humanitarian concern,” she said. “We have the case of a British citizen here – a UK citizen who I also believe to be a prisoner of conscience – being treated extremely badly in pre-trial detention in the United States ... this is clearly an acute humanitarian emergency.”

Meanwhile, as concern grows over the treatment of Manning on both sides of the Atlantic, back in his tiny cell at the Quantico brig in Virginia, his condition continues to deteriorate. David House, a friend of Manning and one of the few individuals on his “approved visitor” list, has described how the soldier has both physically and psychologically suffered.

“I have noticed that his condition, psychologically, has been degrading,” House told CBC radio two weeks ago. “When I visited him last December, physically he had big bags under his eyes, very ashen in his face, he’d lost a lot of weight. He looked like someone who had not had exercise in several months, which in his case is true.”

Along with publisher Jane Hamsher, House recently tried to deliver a 42,000 signature petition to the Quantico brig Commander, however was prevented from doing so by military officials. The number of signatures on the petition continues to grow, as does awareness of Manning’s mistreatment. Yet even in the face of seven months of solitary confinement and the consequential physical and psychological deterioration, what emerges is a picture of a principled young soldier who cannot, and will not, be broken.

“When I look in Bradley’s eyes, I see a man who is a very ethical individual, who is very humble and – above all else – very resolved,” says House. “Despite the fact that Bradley has gone through all this utterly barbaric treatment from the US Government, he tells me he is able to meditate, at some points, and this centres him and gives him some sort of internal strength. He told me that he is able to maintain his resolve in the midst of this.”

In unverified chat logs with Adrian Lamo prior to the alleged leak, Manning’s strength of character again shines through. According to the logs, Manning says he witnessed war crimes and realised he was “actively involved in something that I was completely against”. “If you had free reign over classified networks for long periods of time,” he asked Lamo, “and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington DC… what would you do?”

If Manning was indeed the leaker of the military files, in the end he made the right, noble and principled choice – and history will be on his side. For the foreseeable future, though, the iron fist of Barack Obama’s velvet-gloved administration will continue to hammer down on him with ceaseless force every minute of every day. “Government whistleblowers are part of a healthy democracy and must be protected from reprisal,” Obama said in 2008 . . . But as the treatment of Bradley Manning so tragically illustrates, these words have long since been rendered meaningless.

The young soldier's future does not look bright. He could serve the rest of his life in prison, and the clock continues to tick. As citizens of the United Kingdom we must therefore be clear: if the UK government is in a position to offer consular assistance to Bradley Manning, then in the name of liberty, justice and humanity, now is the time for it to act with urgency.

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