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Hearings Resume Today in|Pfc. Manning’s Court Martial

FT. MEADE, Md. (CN) - Hearings resume today in the court martial of Pfc. Bradley Manning, accused of the biggest intelligence leak in U.S. history.

On Sunday, a Marine assigned to be Manning's counselor and advocate at a now-defunct military prison in Quantico, Va. acknowledged that he cracked a joke about rejecting a package sent to Manning near his birthday.

Manning, 24, spent 9 months, from July 29, 2010, to April 19, 2011, at Quantico before stepping foot in any courtroom to defend himself from charges of sending hundreds of thousands of government files to WikiLeaks.

During that time, Manning spent more than 23 hours a day in a windowless, 6-by-8-foot cell, shackled at the legs and arms during "sunshine call," under monitoring even when he went to the bathroom.

If the military judge, Col. Denise Lind, finds this "unlawful pretrial punishment," and Manning is convicted of any of the 22 charges he faces, the judge could reduce his sentence. She could even dismiss the charges, though that is considered unlikely.

Hearings on Manning's pre-trial confinement began last week, with Manning testifying for the first time. Some of his guards, the former head of the Quantico brig and others also testified.

The most serious charge Manning faces at his trial, now scheduled for March 2013, is one count of "aiding the enemy," punishable by up to life in prison.

If convicted of other charges, he could face decades in prison.

The court on Sunday heard from Master Sgt. Craig Blenis, a stocky Marine with a ruddy face, glasses and a staccato voice.

While serving as Manning's counselor and advocate, Blenis told his superiors in an email that he rejected a package sent to Manning close to his birthday out of security concerns, lack of approval for the parcel, and because "we felt like being dicks."

The brig's Commanding Officer James Averhart, one of the recipients, replied, "You crazy Gunns!"

Manning's attorney, David Coombs, wrote in a defense brief: "This sort of communication is clearly not appropriate in a professional setting. However, it reflects the culture at Quantico - a culture where 'boys will be boys' and nobody is held to account for their conduct."

After showing Blenis this email in court Sunday, Coombs asked, "Was there any other instance when you behaved unprofessionally with Pfc. Manning?"

"Not specifically," Blenis replied.

Shortly after this denial, Coombs showed him a letter dated March 2011, a few days after Manning had been placed on suicide watch.

"Make sure he is not standing at attention naked for evening count right before taps," a senior enlisted man told Blenis and three other recipients. "You should be taking his panties right before he lays down."

When asked if he also called Manning's underwear "panties," Blenis responded, "I probably did, sir."

Blenis said he used the term for men's underwear, including his own.

A defense motion calls it evidence of "intolerance and homophobia" among brig staff.

This allegation resurfaced when Blenis testified about finding that Manning had signed two outgoing letters with a female name, Breana Elizabeth.

"For you that was a red flag?" Coombs asked.

"Yes, sir," Blenis answered. He added later, ""That's not normal, sir."

Manning, who wishes to be identified as male, explored a female identity in the Army while "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was still on the books.

Blenis said he considered the "Breana Elizabeth" signatures as "a factor" in keeping Manning on prevention of injury, or POI, status and Suicide Risk, or SR, status.

Manning was placed on SR status after guards found nooses in his cell in Kuwait, where he was previously held.

Quantico's chief psychologist, Capt. William Hocter, testified last week that Manning's mental state rapidly improved after his transfer, and there was "no clinical reason" to keep him under closely monitored and highly restrictive conditions.

Blenis said he did not follow this recommendation because Hocter because gave a clean bill of health to another detainee that committed suicide, and had poor communications with brig staff.

Blenis spoke of "odd" behaviors from Manning.

One of these, he said, was a report that Manning danced in front of a mirror in his cell.

Manning testified that he spent more than 23 hours a day alone in his cell. Brig rules barred him from exercising, but dancing did not violate regulations.

"I'll confess, I may have done that myself," Coombs told Blenis. "You ever done that yourself?"

"No, sir," the Marine answered.

Another factor Blenis cited was lack of communication from Manning. The two of them had little in common, he said.

Blenis said that he chatted with Manning one time about mythological creatures, and that he could not follow Manning's philosophical reply about the evolution of man and man's use of the brain.

Blenis had little to add about Manning's reading material, which included Scientific American.

"That's not a fluff magazine," Coombs noted.

"I don't know," Blenis replied. "I don't have a lot of time, sir. I don't read magazines."

Roughly eight months into his confinement, Manning was placed in suicide risk again after he told a guard that if he wanted to kill himself, he could use the waistband of his underwear or his flip-flops.

Coombs asked if Blenis felt it was possible that Manning was being sarcastic.

While he acknowledged that "it's a very real possibility," Blenis said he would have faced prosecution if that assessment was wrong.

"I can't explain that at my court-martial, sir," he said.

Manning confronted Blenis about getting out of POI and suicide risk in a meeting captured on video monitoring.

On the tape, Blenis insists, "It's not a punitive thing, I understand why someone would see it as a punitive thing because restrictions placed [inaudible] ... I can tell you that ... since you have been here ... I wish I had 100 Mannings," according to a transcript of the encounter.

About one month later, Manning was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, his current brig, which determined he could be placed with the general population.

Hearings on Manning's pre-trial detention resume today (Wednesday) and are expected to last for one more week.

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