One year in jail, Bradley Manning is a hero

Blowing the whistle on war crimes is no crime.

On 26 May, Private Bradley Manning will have been held in US military detention without trial for one year. He faces a battery of charges, including "aiding the enemy" – a crime punishable by execution under US law.

What was Manning's crime? As well as allegedly releasing classified diplomatic cables that exposed the hypocrisy of top US officials, it is alleged that he blew the whistle on war crimes and cover-ups by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. If this is true, the man is a hero. He is a defender of democracy and human rights. His actions are based on the principle that citizens have a right to know what the government is doing in their name.

Manning should not be in prison. The charges against him should be dropped. Instead, the US should put on trial those who killed innocent civilians and those who protected them.

Even many Americans agree that Bradley Manning is a true patriot, not a traitor. He reveres the founding ideals of the US – an open, honest government accountable to the people, which pursues its policies by lawful means that respect human rights. At great personal risk, he sought to expose grave crimes that were perpetrated and then hidden by the US government and military.

These are the characteristics of a man of conscience, motivated by altruism. Any misjudgements he made in his alleged release of certain documents are far outweighed by the positive good overall. Thanks to Manning, we, the people, know the truth.

"Cruel, inhuman and degrading"

Critics say that WikiLeaks was sometimes indiscriminate and even reckless in its release of certain documents. This may be true in a small number of cases. Regardless, these releases were done by WikiLeaks, not by Manning. He allegedly passed the information in good faith. He did not publish the documents. WikiLeaks did. Manning cannot be blamed for any shortcomings in the way WikiLeaks released the information.

For nine months, 23-year-old Manning was imprisoned in harsh, inhuman conditions at the Quantico marine corps base in Virginia.

He was subjected to long periods of solitary confinement and many extreme deprivations, which amounted to pre-conviction punishment. This mistreatment was condemned by more than 250 of America's most eminent legal scholars.

The abuse of Manning constituted illegal "cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment", contrary to the UN Convention Against Torture and to the Eighth Amendment to the US constitution. It is arguable that President Obama should be indicted by the International Criminal Court. He bears direct personal and legal responsibility for the mistreatment of Manning. He knew about it, publicly endorsed it and did nothing to stop it.

After worldwide protests, Manning was recently transferred to a standard medium-security military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where his treatment has significantly improved.

He is being held on the, as yet, unproven allegation that he leaked classified US military and diplomatic documents that were subsequently released by WikiLeaks. These documents exposed US war crimes, as well as US foreign policy dishonesty and duplicity.

Covering up slaughter

Manning is a humanist and a man with a conscience. When he discovered human rights violations by the US armed forces and two-facedness by the US government, he was shocked and distressed. He became disillusioned with his country's foreign and military policy, believing it was betraying its professed democratic and humanitarian mission.

The abuse that first triggered Manning's disillusionment came when he was posted to Iraq in October 2009 as an intelligence analyst. He was appalled to discover US military collusion with the repression of dissent in Iraq; in particular "watching 15 detainees taken by the Iraqi Federal Police . . . for printing 'anti-Iraqi' literature".

The offending literature exposed corruption in the US-backed government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. When he complained that US forces should not be assisting in suppressing free speech and peaceful protest, he was told to keep quiet and that the US armed forces in Iraq should be doing more to silence opponents of the Maliki regime.

He was further outraged to discover top-secret video footage of a US Apache helicopter attack that gunned down 11 Iraqi civilians in 2007, including two Reuters journalists and men who had gone to the aid of the wounded. Two children were also gravely injured when the US helicopter opened fire on their van. The video records US soldiers laughing and joking at the killings, and also insulting the victims.

The video of the massacre can be seen here.

This slaughter had previously been the subject of a cover-up by the US armed forces, which claimed dishonestly that the helicopter had been engaged in combat operations against armed enemy forces.

It is only (allegedly) thanks to Bradley Manning that we now know the truth about this killing of innocent civilians – and about the killings of hundreds of other civilians in unreported and undocumented incidents.

Manning is a US citizen but also a British citizen through his Welsh mother. Since he has been in detention, he has received no British consular support. Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy, Nick Clegg, have failed to help him. They have never spoken publicly against his maltreatment nor, as far as we know, made any private appeals to the US government and military to halt the abuse that Manning suffered at Quantico.

So much for the coalition's professed commitment to human rights and civil liberties.

Peter Tatchell is a human rights campaigner.

TAKE ACTION – What you can do:

1. Write to Bradley Manning. Send him your support: PFC Bradley Manning 89289. Fort Leavenworth Military Detention Centre, 830 Sabalu Road, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, KS 66027, USA.

2. Sign the petition in support of Bradley Manning.

3. Ask your MP and MEPs to urge the British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary to ensure a British consular visit to Bradley Manning, and to press the US government to drop all charges and release him. You can email your MP and MEPs direct through this website.

4. Phone or write to the US embassy in London – 24 Grosvenor Square, London W1A 1AE (tel: 020 7499 9000).

5. Write to President Obama, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington DC20500, USA.

Peter Tatchell is Director of the Peter Tatchell Foundation, which campaigns for human rights the UK and worldwide: www.PeterTatchellFoundation.org His personal biography can be viewed here: www.petertatchell.net/biography.htm

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.