Court hears of Bradley Manning's treatment in custody

WikiLeaks suspect kept on extreme suicide-prevention measures because of 'erratic dancing and playing

Military commanders at the marine base in Quantico in Virginia kept Bradley Manning, the WikiLeaks suspect, on extreme suicide-prevention measures because he engaged in "erratic dancing" and played peek-a-boo, the soldier's court martial has been told. The measures were likened by the UN to torture.

Daniel Choike, who was commander of the Quantico marine base between 29 July 2010 and 20 April 2011, when Manning was held there, said he had agreed to keep the soldier on a restrictive "prevention of injury" (PoI) order because of his "erratic behaviour, poor judgment in the past and poor family relationships".

The PoI order involved Manning being held in his cell for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, having all his possessions withheld, being checked every five minutes, held overnight with the light on, and at times stripped of all his clothes.

Asked by David Coombs, Manning's civilian defence lawyer, to state specifically what "erratic behaviour" the soldier had displayed, Choike replied: "His acting out, playing peek-a-boo, licking the bars of his cell, dancing, erratic dancing – those are the ones I recall."

Coombs asked Choike whether he could imagine that somebody held captive in a 6ft by 8ft cell might dance out of boredom, to keep his mind occupied. "I suppose so," the retired colonel said.

Coombs asked whether Choike had been aware that the incidents of Manning licking the bars on his cell had happened when he was sleepwalking, probably as a result of the medication he had been given. Choike replied that he was not. It also emerged in court that one member of staff at the brig where Manning was held wrote a playful ditty about the removal of the soldier's underwear at night as part of his extreme regime. The officer transposed underpants into Dr Seuss's nonsense poem, Green Eggs and Ham:

"I can wear them in a box,

I can wear them with a fox,

I can wear them in the day,

I can wear them so I say,

But I can't wear them at night,

My comments gave the staff a fright."

Coombs read the revised poem to Choike and asked him: "Do you think the subject of the removal of his underwear was a joking matter?"

"No," replied Choike.

The exchange between Manning's lawyer and the marine commander happened on the first day of the latest pre-trial hearing in the soldier's court martial at Fort Meade in Maryland. Manning himself is expected to take the witness stand on Wednesday or Thursday.

Choike revealed to the court martial that he warned his superior officer in the Pentagon from the start that in his opinion Quantico was not the right place for Manning's detention long-term. "I didn't feel that PFC Manning should be detained more than 90 days in the brig."

In the end Manning spent nine months at Quantico – three times what Choike thought appropriate. His treatment there prompted international protests from the UN, Amnesty and other organisations, some of which likened the conditions to torture.

Choike said the brig at Quantico was unprepared for the long-term detention of such a high-profile case as Manning on a number of levels such as dealing with the media and the medical needs of the detainee.

The chief prosecution lawyer, army major Ashden Fein, cross-examining Choike, referred to behaviour from Manning in the brig that he implied suggested suicidal tendencies, including nooses that Manning made while in Quantico. "You were aware of him licking the bars at night, that he wouldn't interact with staff, that there were times when he wouldn't be responsive at all, that there was an incident of him crying behind an exercise machine," Fein said.

The army private is facing 22 counts in three charges relating to the massive transmission of US state secrets to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks. Hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables and war logs from Iraq and Afghanistan were leaked and published by WikiLeaks, partly in collaboration with international newspapers including the Guardian.

The current hearing is focusing on what is known as an Article 13 – the claim by the defence that Manning was subjected to illegal pre-trial punishment during the nine months he was held in Quantico. The hearing, scheduled to last six days, constitutes the first opportunity for Manning's legal team to question the military commanders who decided to keep him in such harsh conditions.

His treatment in Quantico provoked an eruption of international outrage, with protests from the UN rapporteur on torture and Amnesty International.

Under lengthy and at times intense questioning, Choike painted a picture of a military hierarchy that was almost obsessively focused on media reaction to what was happening to Manning in Quantico, fearful of the press fallout should the soldier attempt to kill himself. Choike admitted that the interest went right up to the level of General George Casey, then chief of staff of the US army.

Those who paid very close attention to Manning's time at Quantico included Lt Gen George Flynn, a three-star general based in the Pentagon. From the start, Flynn appears to have set the parameters for Manning's treatment at Quantico, according to the information that emerged from a series of emails read out at the hearing.

The revelations will heighten speculation that there was a political element to the mistreatment of the alleged WikiLeaks source. Bradley Manning supporters have long pointed to Flynn as a key figure in the decision to subject the soldier to an extreme regime, bringing the issue closer to the centre of the Obama administration.

One email written shortly before the soldier arrived at the marine base after his arrest in Iraq said that Flynn "would like to be proactive and make sure we hold the moral high ground if this issue takes hold in the press".

Another email from Flynn relating to the decision to strip Manning naked at night said "it would be good to have the leadership have a heads up on these things before they are read in the Early Bird!" The Early Bird is the synopsis of press clippings circulated every morning to military leaders.

Choike insisted that Flynn only wanted to be kept informed about Manning's condition, but did not want to influence the decisions taken over his treatment. But emails read out to the court present a different account.

One email from Choike himself to staff at the brig, written at the time that Manning was forced to strip naked, said that no changes to the soldier's status should be made "without passing to [Flynn] for his consideration". Flynn, he added, "wouldn't put anything in writing".

The same email underlined the importance of passing information on Manning up the line to Flynn at the Pentagon, as Flynn "will have to determine the political impact, media interest, legal ramifications and senior leadership reactions – and he can't do that without us informing him."

Coombs grilled Choike about the period in which Manning was forced to stand naked outside his cell for morning inspection. Choike said that he had been told by brig staff that Manning had been offered a blanket and a suicide smock but had turned them down.

"I believe he chose to do this [stand naked]," Choike said.

"Were you told that Manning had grabbed the blanket but was ordered to put it down?" Coombs said.

"No, I wasn't told that," Choike said.


Ed Pilkington in Fort Meade

The GuardianTramp

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