FORT MEADE, Maryland: WikiLeaks suspect Bradley Manning admitted to falling apart during his detention and contemplating suicide, as he took the stand for the first time at a pre-trial hearing on Thursday.
The 24-year-old US Army private, facing possible life imprisonment over allegedly leaking documents to the secret-spilling WikiLeaks website, acknowledged he had suicidal thoughts initially when he was held in a “cage” in Kuwait in 2010.
He told the court he “started to fall apart” not long after being detained in Iraq in May 2010. After being held for a short time in Kuwait, he was transferred to a brig in Quantico, Virginia, where he was held for nine months.
Later on Thursday military judge Denize Lind said Manning could potentially plead guilty to lesser charges and avoid conviction for “aiding the enemy,” which carries a possible life sentence.
However, the ruling focused solely on the wording of a proposal from Manning and did not represent formal acceptance of a plea, which could come at later proceedings.
During about five hours of testimony, Manning showed flashes of humor as he calmly recounted the severe restrictions and monotony he faced during his pre-trial confinement in Kuwait and Quantico.
Manning is demanding his case be dismissed because of alleged mistreatment during his detention at the Quantico brig, where he was kept isolated and under suicide watch despite objections from psychiatrists.
The boyish-looking soldier recounted how he was forced to stand at attention naked in his cell and encountered angry responses when he questioned his detention regime.
“If I needed toilet paper, I would stand to attention and shout: ‘Detainee Manning requests toilet paper!’” he said.
Manning, accused of the worst security breach in American history, faces a slew of charges over his alleged disclosures to WikiLeaks, which embarrassed the US government and rankled Washington’s allies. Manning said that soon after his detention in Kuwait he lost phone privileges and started to feel increasingly anxious.
“I totally started to fall apart,” said Manning, clad in a blue dress uniform and rimless glasses.
Before his transfer to Quantico in July 2010, Manning said guards at a US brig in Kuwait repeatedly searched his cell and scattered his possessions.
Manning said he soon had suicidal feelings, which he conveyed to mental health counselors who later prescribed medication. “I certainly contemplated it a few times,” he said.
“I had pretty much given up. My world had just shrunk.”
At Quantico, Manning said he maintained a tough mental outlook and never returned to the despair he felt in Kuwait.
But he said he grew frustrated after his requests to lift suicide watch measures were rebuffed, leading him to conclude his appeals were “pointless.”
Manning, who has poor vision, said he had his glasses taken away, had to request toilet paper and was forced to remove his underwear at night and then sleep on an uncomfortable mattress designed for inmates deemed a suicide risk.
At the hearing in Fort Meade, Maryland, north of the US capital, Manning was asked to step from the dock and stand near an outline of his narrow cell at Quantico, which was drawn on the floor of the courtroom.
As he pointed out details of the six-by-eight-foot (1.8 meter by 2.4 meter) cell, he was asked to try on a heavy “suicide smock” similar to the one he had to wear to bed during his detention.
He told the court the garment was made of “coarse” material that caused him to break out in a rash, as did similar blankets that did not retain heat.
Two US military psychiatrists told the court earlier that the strict conditions imposed at the brig were unnecessary, unprecedented in duration and against their medical advice.
Manning’s treatment at Quantico sparked an international outcry and a United Nations rapporteur on torture concluded he was subjected to cruel and inhumane treatment.
But the US military defends its handling of Manning, saying he had voiced suicidal thoughts in Kuwait and that brig commanders were determined to ensure his safety.
During his testimony, Manning appeared to grow more at ease, apparently relishing his first chance to speak publicly after two years behind bars.
He said the monotony of his solitary detention at Quantico led him to dance inside his cell and to make faces in the mirror, which he said was the result of “sheer, complete, out-of-my-mind boredom.”
After his detention from July 2010 to April 2011 at Quantico, Manning was transferred to a prison at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where authorities concluded he was not a suicide risk and granted him regular privileges.
At Leavenworth, he said he was amazed when he was allowed to leave his cell without shackles on his hands and feet.