WikiLeaks suspect to make first court appearance

WASHINGTON - Bradley Manning, the US soldier accused of turning over a trove of classified US documents to WikiLeaks, makes his first appearance in court Friday to determine whether he should be tried on charges which could send him to prison for the rest of his life.

The former intelligence analyst, who turns 24 on Saturday, is scheduled to attend a preliminary hearing starting at 9:00 am (1400 GMT) at the headquarters of the top secret National Security Agency in Fort Meade, Maryland.

The so-called "Article 32 hearing," which could last up to a week, is being held to decide whether Manning, who has been in US military custody for over 18 months, should face a formal court-martial.

Manning is accused of downloading 260,000 US diplomatic cables, videos of US air strikes and US military reports from Afghanistan and Iraq between November 2009 and May 2010 while serving in Iraq and transferring them to WikiLeaks.

In instant message chats with Adrian Lamo, the former computer hacker who turned him over to the authorities, Manning said the material "belongs in the public domain" and its release would hopefully trigger "worldwide discussion, debates and reforms."

"I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are, because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public," Manning said in the chat logs published by in which Manning used the handle "bradass87."

Such statements have made Manning a hero to anti-war activists and his supporters, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, plan to hold vigils and rallies outside the gates of Fort Meade during the hearing.

The US government, however, denounced the document dump, one of the worst intelligence breaches in American history, as a "criminal" move which endangered national security and foreign policy.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on Thursday on the eve of Manning's hearing, said it was a "very unfortunate and damaging action... that put at risk individuals and relationships."

Manning is facing a string of charges, the most serious being aiding the enemy, which could land him life in prison. Aiding the enemy can be a capital offense but the military has said it will not seek the death penalty.

Other charges include "wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet," violating military security regulations, computer fraud and theft of public property and records.

Manning was arrested on May 26, 2010 and has been in American military custody since then in Kuwait, at a US Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, and at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.

According to Manning's lead counsel, David Coombs, the hearing opening on Friday will provide the defense with an opportunity to "test the relative strengths and weaknesses of the government's case."

Coombs requested the appearance of 48 witnesses at the hearing, including Clinton, former defense secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama, but the demand was rejected and the list of witnesses cut to 10.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, under house arrest in Britain awaiting potential extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges, has denied knowing the source of the leaks, but has defended Manning as a victim of US government mistreatment and raised funds for his defense.

Manning was transferred to Fort Leavenworth in April following criticism by his supporters and human rights groups of the conditions of his detention at Quantico, where he spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement.