First hearing for WikiLeaks soldier after 19 months

Lawyers for the U.S. soldier accused of leaking government secrets to WikiLeaks demanded a new trial judge yesterday as he appeared in public for the first time since his arrest.

Private Bradley Manning, 24, was surrounded by heavy security at Fort Meade army base in Maryland for a pre-trial hearing to decide whether he should be court-martialed.

His defence team insisted that his trial's presiding officer, Lt Col Paul Almanza, was 'biased' and should step down.

David Coombs, Manning's lawyer, said the officer, an army reservist, was prejudiced because his civilian life employer, the Justice Department, had launched a criminal investigation into WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Mr Coombs told the court the Justice Department wanted a plea deal with his client so he could help them 'go after' Assange and WikiLeaks.

Manning, who wore army camouflage fatigues in court, faces life in prison if convicted.

Twirling a pen in his fingers, he showed little emotion in court, answering 'Yes, sir' when the prosecution asked if he understood the charges.

The most serious of 23 charges against him is that he 'aided the enemy' with his leaking of reams of U.S. State Department cables to the anti-secrecy website. A second charge alleges he caused information to be published on the internet, knowing it would be 'accessible to the enemy'.

Imprisoned since his arrest in Iraq in May 2010, Manning's treatment by the military - waiting out the long legal delay in solitary confinement - has provoked sharp criticism and accusations the U.S. is taking revenge on him for the embarrassment caused by WikiLeaks.

His supporters hail him a hero for exposing U.S. misdeeds in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics counter that as an Army intelligence analyst, he not only broke his oath of loyalty but jeopardised the safety of dozens of U.S. agents and informants.

* The Supreme Court yesterday granted permission for Assange to appeal against his extradition from Britain to Sweden, where he faces sex crime allegations.

* The court said it would hear the appeal after the WikiLeaks founder raised a question on extradition law 'of general public importance'.

* The two-day hearing will begin on February 1.

- The Daily Mail

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