A US soldier accused of giving classified documents to WikiLeaks appeared in court Friday for the first time, with the defense immediately alleging the military hearing is biased.
Bradley Manning, a former intelligence analyst, is accused of downloading 260,000 US diplomatic cables, videos of US air strikes and US military reports from Afghanistan and Iraq between November 2009 and May 2010.
He was serving in Iraq at the time and allegedly transferred the data to WikiLeaks, which then published the documents worldwide on the Internet, in one of the worst breaches ever of US military intelligence.
Manning was arrested on May 26, 2010, and has been in American military custody since then in Kuwait, at a US Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, and at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.
His so-called "Article 32 hearing," which could last up to a week at Fort Meade, Maryland, is being held to decide whether Manning, who turns 24 on Saturday, should face a formal court-martial.
Wearing a green camouflage uniform, Manning appeared calm as he told the presiding officer, US Army Lieutenant Colonel Paul Almanza, that he understood the charges against him and his rights.
But his civilian attorney David Coombs, who is accompanied by two US Army military lawyers, immediately demanded Almanza recuse himself from the case.
Coombs said that as Almanza was a career military prosecutor, it raised questions of whether or not he could be impartial.
The government had submitted a list of 20 witnesses, and "every one was granted," Coombs said.
The defense submitted a request for 48 witnesses, of which 10 were the same as the government's "but only two out of 38 that were not in common were granted," Coombs said.
"An individual looking at this from the outside, a reasonable person, would say clearly this is biased."
Coombs had requested the appearance of witnesses including US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former defense secretary Robert Gates and President Barack Obama.
Manning is facing a string of charges, the most serious being aiding the enemy, which could land him life in prison. Aiding the enemy can be a capital offense but the military has said it would not seek the death penalty.
Other charges include "wrongfully causing intelligence to be published on the Internet," violating military security regulations, computer fraud and theft of public property and records.
Anti-war activists see Manning as a hero. And his supporters, including Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, were planning to hold vigils and rallies outside the gates of Fort Meade during the hearing.
In instant message chats with Adrian Lamo, the former computer hacker who turned him over to the authorities, Manning said the material "belongs in the public domain" and its release would hopefully trigger "worldwide discussion, debates and reforms."
"I want people to see the truth, regardless of who they are, because without information you cannot make informed decisions as a public," Manning said in the chat logs in which he used the handle "bradass87."
The US government, however, denounced the document dump as a "criminal" move which endangered national security and foreign policy.
Clinton, speaking on the eve of Manning's hearing, said it was a "very unfortunate and damaging action... that put at risk individuals and relationships."
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, under house arrest in Britain awaiting potential extradition to Sweden to face sexual assault charges, has denied knowing the source of the leaks, but has defended Manning as a victim of US government mistreatment and raised funds for his defense.
On Friday Assange was granted permission to appeal his extradition from and a hearing will start on February 1.
Manning was transferred to Fort Leavenworth in April following criticism by his supporters and human rights groups of the conditions of his detention at Quantico, where he spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement.