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22 May, 2013 14:07

Courtroom ordered closed for Manning trial session to ‘protect classified information’

Courtroom ordered closed for Manning trial session to ‘protect classified information’

A US judge has ruled that some testimony in the Bradley Manning trial will be heard behind closed doors to ensure that classified information is safeguarded.

The order comes after judges dropped one count against Manning, but are still pushing for serious charges: Disclosing classified data to WikiLeaks and aiding Al-Qaeda. Manning has pleaded guilty to 10 of the 22 charges set against him, standing accused of leaking over 700,000 documents to Wikileaks.

Twenty-four witnesses, including several US ambassadors, will testify behind closed doors during the trial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, which begins on June 3.

The decision was made by US Military judge Col. Denise Lind, who heads the case. She indicated that otherwise, some sensitive information could be revealed. A censored transcript of the hearing will be published at a later date, the judge explained.

There has already been too much secrecy in the Manning case, Jesselyn Radack, national security and human rights director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project told AP two weeks ago.

"The more they do behind closed doors and the more they do through secret codes or anything else that shields the public from information, like not providing transcripts, those things are all antithetical to the democratic idea of having a free and open trial," Radack stressed.

Last year, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a petition to order the court to grant the public and press wider access to the trial, a request an appeals court later denied.

In April, prosecutors urged journalists to “police” each other and inform judges if they notice other reporters taking notes or recordings the proceedings. The move followed the leak of a snippet of audio from the courtroom featuring Manning’s testimony about his motives in leaking the documents.

Supporters of U.S. Army Pfc. Bradley Manning protest during his scheduled motion hearing, outside the gates of Fort Meade, Maryland November 27, 2012.(Reuters / Jose Luis Magana)

The Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) released the audio, marking the first time the public has heard Manning's voice since his 2010 arrest. Manning justified his actions by calling for the exposure of what he saw as US government wrongdoings in order to “spark a domestic debate on the role of the military and our foreign policy in general as it related to Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In the recording, he goes on to accuse the US Army of “not valu[ing] human life," and compared other soldiers to "a child torturing ants with a magnifying glass."

Pfc. Bradley Manning admitted to disclosing classified government documents and diplomatic cables to whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, and now faces charges of aiding the enemy for those leaks. Part of the government’s case against Manning asserts that late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden asked one of his deputies to download documents leaked by Manning.

Among the witnesses set to testify was one of the Navy SEALs that raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan in May 2011. Prosecutors said the “DoD operator,” whose identity was not disclosed, would testify that terrorists had received access to some of the WikiLeaks material through an associate.

Prosecutors said Tuesday that they had agreed not to pursue a charge that Manning had violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, reducing his potential 162-year prison sentence by eight years.

Just over a month ago, the judge ordered the prosecution to prove that Manning intended to harm the US by leaking the cables.

On Tuesday, judges accepted Manning’s guilty plea to one of the charges. The offense was related to a State Department cable from the US embassy in Reykjavik, Iceland, which Manning has admitted to leaking.

Manning has offered to plead guilty to 10 of the less serious charges against him, which could see him sentenced to up to 20 years. If convicted of all charges against him, he could be imprisoned for up to 150 years.