Private First Class Bradley Manning, the young US soldier accused of aiding the enemy by slipping a trove of national security secrets to WikiLeaks, sat quietly at the opening session of his pretrial hearing on Friday as government and defense lawyers tangled over whether the presiding officer could be impartial.
Manning’s civilian defense lawyer argued that the presiding officer, Paul Almanza, an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel, is biased and should step aside, but Almanza refused. Almanza also denied a move by Manning’s defense to suspend the hearing while seeking to appeal Almanza’s decision to continue on the case.
The hearing is to determine whether Manning will face a court-martial on charges that he aided the enemy by leaking hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents.
Almanza is a US Justice Department prosecutor in civilian life, and Manning’s lawyer said that was reason enough to step aside. The US Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation targeting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.
After Almanza denied the request that he step aside, Manning’s lawyers said they would seek to appeal that decision to the US Army Court of Criminal Appeals. It was unclear when the court would decide whether to hear the appeal.
Before that dispute, Manning, who turned 24 yesterday, took notes during his hearing at this army base between Washington and Baltimore. Dressed in army camouflage fatigues and wearing dark-rimmed glasses, Manning sometimes twirled a pen in his fingers as the hearing got off to a slow start.
A US military legal expert told reporters shortly before the proceedings began that Almanza was likely to make his -recommendation on whether to court-martial Manning within eight days after the hearing ends. The hearing is expected to last through the weekend and possibly well into next week.
The decision on whether to go to court-martial will be made by Major General Michael Linnington, commander of the Military District of Washington. Linnington could choose other courses, including applying an administrative punishment or dismissing some or all of the charges.
While David Coombs, Manning’s civilian attorney, pushed for Almanza, to step aside, Captain Ashden Fein, a member of the prosecution team, told the presiding officer: “The United States does not believe you’ve exhibited any bias in any form and that you can render a fair and impartial decision.”
The Manning case has spawned an international support network of people who believe the US government has gone too far in seeking to punish him.
Manning’s supporters planned to maintain a vigil during the hearing and were organizing a rally for yesterday. By midday on Friday, about 50 protesters had assembled outside the military base’s main -entrance, and a few dozen marched down an adjoining road carrying orange signs that read: “The Bradley Manning Support Network.”
About 30 people were able to go to a base movie theater, where they could watch closed circuit video of the courtroom proceedings, according to Jeff Patterson of the Manning support group. Retired US Army Colonel Ann Wright, an adviser to the group, was able to sit in the courtroom, but Patterson said he did not know whether Manning’s family or other supporters were able to attend the hearing in person.