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Manning's sentencing begins; defence tries to reduce his time in prison

FORT MEADE, Md. – The sentencing for U.S. soldier Bradley Manning began Wednesday, and a judge will decide whether he will spend the rest of his life in prison. For the first time, testimony is being allowed about the actual damage the leaks caused.

Manning faces up to 136 years in prison for the biggest leak of government secrets in U.S. history. He admits giving hundreds of thousands of classified documents to the anti-secrecy-site WikiLeaks. He says he did it to expose U.S military “bloodlust” and diplomatic deceitfulness, but he did not believe his actions would harm the country.

The 25-year-old has been called both a whistleblower and a traitor, and his case has been watched worldwide.

He didn’t testify during the trial, but he could take the stand during the sentencing phase.

The former intelligence analyst was convicted of 20 of 22 charges, but he was found not guilty of aiding the enemy, which alone could have meant life in prison without parole. Prosecutors failed to prove Manning had “general evil intent.”

His defence lawyers now have asked the military judge to merge two of his espionage convictions and two of his theft convictions. If the judge agrees, he would face up to 116 years in prison.

“We’re not celebrating,” defence attorney David Coombs said. “Ultimately, his sentence is all that really matters.”

Military prosecutors said they would call as many as 20 witnesses for the sentencing phase, including experts on counterintelligence, strategic planning and terrorism.

The judge prohibited both sides from presenting evidence during trial about any actual damage the leaks caused to national security and troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, but lawyers can bring that up at sentencing.

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Robert Carr testified Wednesday the classified documents Manning disclosed fractured U.S. military relationships with foreign governments and Afghan villagers.

Carr headed a Defence Department task force that assessed the fallout from the leaks. He said the material identified hundreds of Afghan villagers by name, causing some of them to stop helping U.S. forces.

The leaks embarrassed the U.S. and its allies. U.S. officials warned of dire consequences immediately after the first disclosures in July 2010, but a Defence Department review later suggested those fears might have been too dramatic.

Lisa Windsor, a retired Army colonel and former judge advocate, said the punishment phase would focus on Manning’s motive and the harm that was done by the leak.

“I think it’s likely that he’s going to be in jail for a very long time,” said Windsor.

Advocates for freedom of the press had warned that convicting Manning on a charge of aiding the enemy could have broad implications for leak cases and investigative journalism about national security issues.

Still, the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders said the verdict was a chilling warning to whistleblowers, “against whom the Obama administration has been waging an unprecedented offensive.” The group said it threatens the future of investigative journalism because intimidated sources might fall quiet.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange called the verdict “a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism.”

The leaked material WikiLeaks published documented complaints of abuses against Iraqi detainees, a U.S. count of civilian deaths in Iraq, and America’s weak support for the government of Tunisia — a disclosure Manning supporters said helped trigger the Middle Eastern pro-democracy uprisings known as the Arab Spring.

Prosecutors presented evidence the material fell into the hands of al-Qaida and its former leader, Osama bin Laden, but they struggled to prove their assertion that Manning was an anarchist computer hacker and attention-seeking traitor.