Occupy Wall Street demonstrator shows support for Bradley Manning (photo: David Shankbone)

David Coombs, lawyer for PFC Bradley Manning, the accused whistleblower to WikiLeaks, reports the Army has finally scheduled a date for his pre-trial Article 32 hearing. It will begin on December 16 and last five days. Except for when classified information is being discussed, the public will be able to attend the hearing.

The Bradley Manning Support Network in a statement notes, “This will be PFC Manning’s first appearance before a court and the first time he will face his accusers after 17 months in confinement.” The hearing will also take place just over two weeks after the anniversary of the release of US State Embassy cables known as “Cablegate,” which Manning is accused of submitting to WikiLeaks.

To coincide with the hearing, the Support Network will hold a vigil on December 16, when he arrives at Ft. Meade and then a march and rally on December 17.

Coombs explains:

…The primary purpose of the Article 32 hearing is to evaluate the relative strengths and weaknesses of the government’s case as well as to provide the defense with an opportunity to obtain pretrial discovery. The defense is entitled to call witnesses during the hearing and to also cross examine the government’s witnesses. Each witness who testifies is placed under oath; their testimony can therefore be used during the trial for impeachment purposes or as prior testimony should the witness become unavailable.

The Bradley Manning Support Network asserts “the information he is accused of making public was wrongly and illegally classified, and that whoever leaked the information should be protected as a whistle-blower.” The information he is accused of giving to WikiLeaks includes the “Collateral Murder” video and a cable that likely “contributed to the early exit of troops from Iraq,” as it exposed the US military’s coverup of a war crime.

Additionally, Manning’s confinement has involved harsh conditions. At Quantico Marine base, where he was before being transferred to Ft. Leavenworth, he was made to stand naked and kept in isolation. In January Coombs described his treatment:

For 23 hours per day, he will sit in his cell. The guards will check on him every five minutes by asking him if he is okay. PFC Manning will be required to respond in some affirmative manner. At night, if the guards cannot see him clearly, because he has a blanket over his head or is curled up towards the wall, they will wake him in order to ensure that he is okay. He will receive each of his meals in his cell. He will not be allowed to have a pillow or sheets. He will not be allowed to have any personal items in his cell. He will only be allowed to have one book or one magazine at any given time to read. The book or magazine will be taken away from him at the end of the day before he goes to sleep. He will be prevented from exercising in his cell. If he attempts to do push-ups, sit-ups, or any other form of exercise he will be forced to stop. He will receive one hour of exercise outside of his cell daily. The guards will take him to an empty room and allow him to walk. He will usually just walk in figure eights around the room until his hour is complete. When he goes to sleep, he will be required to strip down to his underwear and surrender his clothing to the guards.

A Freedom of Information Act request revealed Manning was recommended for removal from “prevention of injury” (POI) status by psychiatrists and psychologists but was not removed. He was eventually transferred after State Department spokesperson PJ Crowley called his treatment “ridiculous, counterproductive and stupid.”

While his conditions may have improved, he was transferred to Leavenworth in April and it was thought he might get to begin the pre-trial process in June. The past months have seen Juan Mendez, the United Nations’ rapporteur on torture, denied access to Manning. Mendez would like an unmonitored visit as part of an investigation into abuse.

It has been 569 days since he was imprisoned. Coombs has previously demanded a “speedy trial.” The military has chosen to take its time in prosecuting Manning.

Recently, filmmaker Michael Moore suggested during a panel organized by The Nation that Manning, if he released the information to WikiLeaks, played a role in igniting the uprising in Tunisia that spread to Egypt and other parts of Africa and the Middle East. He talked about the fact that if Manning was responsible for the information that ignited these demonstrations than he is also responsible for the Occupy protests going on in the United States right now because those were inspired by the Arab uprisings.

The hearing will be the first opportunity the public has to see how Manning’s defense will argue against the government. It will also be the first opportunity for the public to see how the government aims to ensure Manning is convicted.

What will be most interesting is how the judge handles the issue of the public not being allowed into the hearing if classified information is being discussed. If the struggles the ACLU and Guantanamo attorneys have experienced provide any indication, the information he is accused of releasing would be treated as still classified even though it is now available to the public. The judge would likely close the hearing to the public when “Collateral Murder,” the war logs, the US State Embassy cables, Gitmo Files, etc, are being discussed. That discussion should make up a good portion of the hearing since his crime, in the eyes of the US government, is “leaking” this information. So, the public may not be able to hear much of the government’s prosecution and at least part of the argument for Manning’s defense.

What the public might be privy to hearing is discussion on how Manning has been treated thus far. But, how much that will factor into the case depends on how much Coombs wants to cite that when defending Manning. If the defense centers on Manning being a whistleblower, again, there probably isn’t much of the hearing the judge will let the public view.

For more on Bradley Manning’s detention, here is Firedoglake’s complete coverage.