FORT MEADE, Maryland: The American soldier accused of the biggest leak of official secrets in US history admitted Friday he turned a prison bed sheet into a makeshift noose that he could have used to kill himself.
Army private Bradley Manning, 24, has been in military custody since his arrest in Iraq more than two years ago on accusations that he leaked hundreds of thousands of confidential documents to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
He faces life imprisonment if convicted of the most serious charge that he “aided the enemy,” chiefly Al-Qaeda, but his defense team argues that the case should be thrown out because of his unduly harsh treatment in jail.
The unveiling of the noose, however, at a pre-trial hearing near the US capital, was a clear gambit by prosecutors to prove that the military’s concerns about Manning taking his own life were indisputable.
“Yes, sir,” the soldier replied, after lead government counsel Major Ashden Fein asked him if he recognized the salmon-colored sheet and had rolled it into a ligature that was completed by tying several knots along the fabric.
The production of the bedding, taken from a cell where Manning was initially held at a garrison in Kuwait, was also intended to rebut testimony from military psychiatrists that the soldier did not require stringent custody measures.
Manning’s disputed mental state may prove pivotal in the case because if the court finds he was abused in custody any time after being detained near Baghdad in May 2010 the charges could fall, or any eventual sentence be reduced.
The former intelligence analyst is accused of passing a huge cache of Iraq and Afghanistan war logs plus confidential diplomatic cables to WikiLeaks, which published them, causing deep embarrassment in Washington and enraging US allies.
After Kuwait, Manning was moved to the US Marine Corps Brig at Quantico in Virginia, where he was kept isolated in excess of 23 hours a day and formally classed as a suicide risk.
His defense team maintains that the POI (prevention of injury) status he was given amounted to degrading treatment.
On Friday, Fein also produced what he said was a second noose, made out of plastic cable ties, but Manning said he could not recall it.
The soldier did, however, confirm the veracity of a subsequent medical note in which he described his chances of committing suicide in ambiguous terms.
“Always planning, never acting,” Manning wrote of the prospect that he may kill himself, coming under pressure over his claim that he was badly treated.
On Thursday, Manning had recounted a detention regime under which he “started to fall apart,” where he was forced to stand to attention naked in his cell and had encountered angry responses when he questioned guards’ orders.
But Major Fein sought to undermine those claims, citing tape recordings taken in prison over a period of eight months where Manning did not raise his alleged mistreatment with anyone who visited him.
“Better than a significant part of the population,” was how Manning described his condition to one Quantico visitor, according to Fein, in November 2010.
However, the soldier said he did not talk about conditions at Quantico as he knew such conversations were being recorded and he did not want friends and family to worry about him.
On Thursday, Manning said his guards in Kuwait repeatedly searched his cell and scattered his possessions, but a day later he told Fein his treatment there had been “very professional.”Fein also asked the soldier about his Quantico cell, which consisted of three walls, a toilet, a sink and a row of bars, where the accused agreed that the small room received natural light and was identical to that of other detainees.
Manning was moved from Quantico in April 2011 to a prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where he was placed under less restrictive conditions.
He is due to go on trial in February next year.