Michael Ratner: Manning describes cruel and unusual punishment; offers to plead to lesser charges.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Baltimore. And welcome to this week’s version of The Ratner Report with Michael Ratner, who joins us from New York. He’s the president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and he’s the chair of the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights in Berlin. And he’s also a board member of The Real News. Thanks for joining us.
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MICHAEL RATNER, PRESIDENT EMERITUS, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: And what I am also , Paul (thank you for having me) is the lawyer for Julian Assange and WikiLeaks. And that’s what’s important about what we’re going to talk about today, which is the trial of Bradley Manning.
JAY: So go ahead.
RATNER: Bradley Manning, as I imagine your listeners know by this time, but is the young private first class from the Army who allegedly uploaded some 5 million documents, or some huge number, maybe not 5 million, but 3 million, to WikiLeaks that included the Iraq War logs, the “Collateral Murder” video, the State Department cables. And we’re actually at the two-year anniversary of the release of the State Department cables. And they also included the Afghan War logs.
He’s been indicted—or, really, charged by the military court of aiding the enemy and a variety of computer charges. And we’re now, over the last few months, going through pretrial proceedings regarding his treatment and other issues before the court martial begins in February. For two and a half years, he has been in custody, some 900-and-some days. He’s now at Fort Meade in Maryland, close by The Real News, or at least fairly close to The Real News.
And the trial I was at yesterday was the first time that Bradley Manning actually took the witness stand and testified. So it was quite a dramatic afternoon, really dramatic, because to see Bradley Manning there in his uniform get on the stand and actually testify was incredibly moving.
JAY: And what was this proceeding about?
RATNER: Right. The subject of this proceeding was the government or United States and military’s treatment of Bradley Manning during the two and a half years he’s been in custody. And it was particularly over the first year of his custody to year and a half when the allegations are that he was tortured in custody, or at least treated with cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. There’s been a lot of substantiation of that treatment. The rapporteur for the United Nations, Mendez, basically said he was treated contrary to the Convention against Torture. And this was a trial in which that conduct was going to be talked about.
So there I am, sitting in this courtroom, small courtroom, a dozen of military guys all in those dress blue uniforms. And we didn’t know when Bradley was going to testify, because they’d had a lot of psychiatrists testify first. The main burden of the psychiatrists’ testimony—this was by the defense—was that they did not recommend that Bradley Manning should be put on suicide risk or on preventive injury risk, that he should be treated like the regular population. But, in fact, for this year, he was treated as if he was a suicide risk. And because of that, he was treated very badly, and probably even worse than people put on that are treated. Normally, those treatments are for four to seven days. The psychiatrists uniformly recommended that Bradley Manning should be treated as normal in the regular population. That was disregarded both—that was disregarded at Quantico in Virginia, where he was ultimately sent for about nine months.
So you’re sitting there in this courtroom, and all of a sudden, unexpected, the lawyer for Bradley Manning, David Coombs, says, Bradley Manning, will you come to the witness stand? And you see Bradley Manning in his dress blue uniform, a tie, a white shirt, sit in the witness stand. Of course, he’s short, 5’2″ or 5’3″, he’s slim, but he actually looked very good.
And what we expected was not what we got. What you expected about Bradley Manning, particularly after all the negative press about all his problems, all his issues, about his sexuality and the military, etc., what you got was somebody very different. He opens his mouth, and you had this confident, bright, intelligent, articulate person who could really describe what happened to him, not nervous, straightforward.
And what happened to him was really outrageous. It was an essential effort to break him down as a human being. And I’ll just summarize it quickly. The first two months, roughly, he was held at a military camp in Kuwait. And here’s how he was held. He said he went into a tent, and there were two cages like they keep animals, each about 8-foot cubes. He was put into one of the cages. The other cage was empty. And he was essentially kept there almost the entire two months. Most of the time had to eat in those cages.
And then his day was as follows. He would be awakened at 11 at night. Eleven at night to 1 p.m. in the afternoon was the time he was up, when he sat in the cage and there was some light on, or he was taken out maybe for a brief time, 20 minutes, to get some air or something. And then he was fed in the cage. That went for almost two months.
He almost collapsed, had a nervous breakdown, really, almost, during that period, saw therapists, or at least—I don’t know if they were therapists—saw some military people who came to attend him. But he said his entire world closed in on him. He said, I’m someone who’s interested in the world; I was interested in what was happening, for example, with the oil leak by BP; I read people like Richard Dawkins. This is a 24-year-old young man, 21 or 22 at the time of these incidents, talking to us like that, but saying, my whole world collapsed and I was just a complete mess after that kind of treatment. So he’s in there for almost two months.
Finally, he’s flown out to Quantico in Virginia, a Marine military base. When he gets on the plane, he says, I have no idea where I’m being sent; I thought it might even be Guantanamo. This all happens to give our people a timeframe. From about end of May 2010 he’s in Kuwait till the end of July 2010, then goes to Quantico till probably April or so of 2011. He gets to Quantico, he’s put on suicide watch, as well as on possibility of injury, as well as supermax and all this, and the conditions are terrible.
And you see what happens next in the courtroom. The lawyer asks for Bradley Manning to step off the witness stand. He steps off the witness stand. And on the floor they draw out the cell with a ruler, six by eight. This is the one at Quantico, Virginia. And they show where the rack is, or a metal thing for the bed. They show the toilet and where the sink is. Then they show that there’s this screen in front of it, a mesh screen that you can see out of, but all you see is a man sitting in a chair on the other side and the observation booth where he’s looked at 24 hours a day. There’s a bright light on him the entire 24 hours. He can’t really sleep, except facing the light, because if he doesn’t face the light where they can see his face across the booth, they come in and they wake him up and they turn him around. So his sleep is interrupted all the time. When he wakes up in this booth—and this went on for nine months—when he wakes up in this booth, he’s not allowed to lean against a wall or lay in bed. Once he’s up for “Reveille”, which is 5 a.m. (at least it’s during the day), he’s up. Once he’s up, they say he can only stand or he can sit on the bunk with his feet on the ground and cannot put his back against the wall. And he’s in this for nine months.
JAY: And so if he puts his back against the wall, they rush in and they force him to sit up?
RATNER: Exactly right. So this, if you look at this, Paul, in a certain way, it’s reminiscent of the stress positions and the other—what we call the Rumsfeld techniques that they used on Guantanamo people—you know, 24-hour light, the stress positions of standing, no communication except with his guards ’cause there’s nobody near him, he’s watched all the time, his meals are in the cell.
And then, of course, what was really dramatic was the moment they talked about what happened when he was forced to get naked. There was a point they said, well, we’re going to make him get naked, they claim because of a suicide risk. But the doctors throughout this period are saying he was normal, there was no suicide risk when he was in that prison, he was no more able to hurt himself or commit suicide than any other prisoner, and they kept telling the administrator of prison he should not be in these conditions, he should not be. If he has a problem, they’re going to make it worse.
JAY: Now, we’ve talked about this before. I mean, to what extent do you think this was carried out because they want him to turn on Assange? Otherwise, what is it they’re trying to get out of him with this kind of techniques?
RATNER: Yeah. I think that’s what it was, because they don’t have an excuse for this treatment, because you had psychiatrist after psychiatrist testifying in the last two days that he was not a suicide risk, and that you also had testimony, interestingly, from some people saying that their opinions as psychiatrists had never been disavowed or disobeyed by the head of the brig. Even though the brig commander is in command and could say, I’m not going to listen to you, this was the only time in their memory, many years of being therapists and psychiatrists, that the brig commander said, we’re not going to agree with you, we have other reasons, and we’re going to keep him in these conditions. So that gives, really, a lot of substance to the fact that these orders were not coming from the brig commander but were coming from somewhere on high, and that it was done for a reason, as we have said on this show, to try and break Bradley Manning.
So to the extent he knows anything—which I don’t think he does, but to the extent the government thinks he does—about his relationship to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, that he will be broken and testify or give information about Julian Assange and how these documents that Bradley Manning allegedly hacked—or not hacked; he wasn’t hacked—that he allegedly gave to WikiLeaks, what WikiLeaks’ involvement in that was.
JAY: And was—Manning’s testimony was all about the conditions of being held. It didn’t relate to any of the other issues of the case.
RATNER: No, doesn’t relate, didn’t relate at all.
JAY: So what does the defense hope to achieve? So if the judges decide that this in fact was cruel and inhuman punishment, then what?
RATNER: You know, that’s a very good question, because what the lawyer asked for is under Article 13 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which says you can’t be subjected to punishment before trial. And this was obviously a form of punishment. It came out as that.
And so the lawyer’s asked for two things. He’s asked for a dismissal of the entire case. Now, this is—look it, this is an aiding-the-enemy case, this is a case that carries a potential death penalty, certainly life imprisonment. Is the judge going to do that? You know, it’s speculation, but this is obviously not the most readily accessible remedy for this violation. On the other hand, it has been done on occasion very rare that the government misconduct is so bad and that it has such dirty hands, the government, that a judge’ll say, that’s it, goodbye. So that’s what he’s ultimately asking for.
But he has a second remedy, because he understands that this first remedy might be difficult for the judge. He’s saying, look it, this guy may get sentenced at some point. And, in fact, there was part of a guilty plea discussed at this court hearing yesterday. And whatever sentence he gets, I want it reduced by the amount of time he spent in pretrial detention, which would be normal, but I want it reduced by ten to one. So for every day he spent in these cruel and degrading, inhumane conditions, I want ten days off his sentence. So the lawyer came up with the number 293 days, almost a year, and he says, therefore I want the sentence reduced 2,930 days, which would be, what, eight or nine years.
JAY: And there’s precedent for that?
RATNER: I don’t know. I don’t know.
JAY: And what happened about the guilty plea and the attempt to have some kind of negotiation?
RATNER: Yeah, that’s important to bring up. A few weeks ago, they offered to plead guilty to certain of the charges or reduce charges, lesser included offenses.
JAY: They being Manning and his lawyer.
RATNER: Yeah, Manning and his lawyer. Manning didn’t say anything. It’s all an offer from his lawyer, because my guess is if it’s not accepted, they withdraw the offer and it’s off the record and there’s no admission by Manning, etc. So Manning didn’t say anything. But the lawyer said, we’re offering to plead guilty to these, these, these, these. And then there’s been a lot of colloquy about it—is this a legitimate plea, are these lesser included?
But the real point here are really two things, one, that the judge doesn’t have to accept the plea, although she seemed to indicate yesterday she would consider accepting the plea, and the government doesn’t have to accept the plea. If the government doesn’t have to accept it, the judge can still accept the plea. The problem is the government can then still go ahead and prove its more serious case, the aiding the enemy case. So here you would have Manning pleading to, you know, passing on documents he shouldn’t have passed on, but not pleading guilty to aiding the enemy or computer misuse, which are more serious, and the government’s saying, well, you can plead to that, you’ll get sentenced for that, but we’re still going to go ahead and try and prove a bigger case.
We don’t know what’s going on here. What the judge said is, look it, I might be willing to accept this plea. The maximum sentence I could give him for this plea, which is seven counts of various unauthorized passing on of documents, would be 14 years. So if that was the end of the case and the government said, okay, we’ll take it, Manning would be subjected to 14 years in prison. That would be, I think, from the defense’s point of view—I won’t say ideal, ’cause there’s no such thing as that. I think, you know, the ideal case would be that Manning should be acquitted in this case and the government should be tried, but that’s another story. But 14 years or less than that, the judge—the maximum is 14—would be, I think, from the defense’s point of view, in a case that offers life imprisonment for millions of documents that were classified, the defense may well see that as a positive development.
On the other hand, they could be then pleading guilty to something, and then the government, it doesn’t have to prove that initial thing anymore; it just has to prove this more difficult, serious case, in which case he could get a much longer sentence.
It may also, though—it’s not a jury trial. They’ve chosen to be tried before the judge. Manning was shown as a substantial, well-thought human being in front of that judge yesterday, articulate, smart. It may be that that’s helpful, and it may also be that he’s willing to plead guilty to a core part of this [incompr.] helpful and perhaps make the judge more sympathetic.
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Michael. And we’ll obviously—
RATNER: Thank you for having me, Paul.
JAY: —we’ll continue following this in weekly reports. Thanks for joining us on The Real News.