FORT MEADE, Maryland: WikiLeaks suspect Bradley Manning, testifying for the first time, said Thursday he struggled to persuade the military to lift a strict “suicide watch” during his detention but admitted he had contemplated taking his life at one point.
The 24-year-old US Army private, facing possible life imprisonment over his alleged document dump to the secret-spilling WikiLeaks website, acknowledged he had suicidal thoughts initially when he was held in a “cage” in Kuwait in 2010, before being transferred to a brig in Quantico, Virginia.
He told the court he “started to fall apart” not long after being detained in Iraq in May 2010.
During about five hours of testimony, Manning showed flashes of humour as he calmly recounted the severe restrictions and monotony he faced during his pre-trial confinement in Kuwait and Quantico.
Manning is demanding the court dismiss his case because of alleged illegal punishment he suffered during his detention for nine months 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!'”
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.
Defence lawyer David Coombs focused his questions on Manning's detention in Iraq and Kuwait and then at the Marine Corps brig in Quantico in July 2010.
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, 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 counsellors 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 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 well as 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.
His treatment at Quantico sparked an international outcry and a United Nations rapporteur on torture concluded Manning 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 at risk of committing suicide and was granted regular privileges.
At Leavenworth, he said he was amazed when he was allowed to leave his cell without shackles on his hands and feet.