By Medina Roshan
FORT MEADE, Maryland (Reuters) - The U.S. Army private charged with leaking classified U.S. war documents was held in extreme confinement for nine months at a Marine Corps detention center because of a pattern of behavior suggesting suicidal thoughts, military officials testified Sunday at a pretrial hearing.
Despite several recommendations from the psychiatrist at the brig - the military detention center - that Army private Bradley Manning, 24, did not appear suicidal, two military sergeants who counseled Manning testified Sunday that he was uncommunicative, dismissive and had made suicidal comments before and during his detention at the Quantico, Virginia, Marine base.
Military judge Colonel Denise Lind said at Sunday's hearing that if a trial for Manning is held, it would begin next March, not in February, due to extensive pretrial motions.
Manning's attorneys are trying to prove in a pre-trial hearing that the extreme confinement at Quantico constitutes illegal punishment, and should prompt the dismissal of 22 charges against him, including aiding the enemy, which is punishable by life in prison.
On Sunday, Army Staff Sergeant Ryan Jordan testified that Manning was uncommunicative during his detention at Quantico. Manning "wouldn't open up," Jordan said. "He wouldn't talk to anybody."
In their testimony, Jordan and Marine Master Sergeant Craig Blenis noted several incidents they said supported their concerns about Manning's mental state.
They testified that he crafted a noose out of a bed sheet during confinement in Kuwait soon after his arrest; that he told a Marine brig staffer in March 2011 that he could make a noose out of the elastic in his underwear; and stated upon arriving at Quantico in July 2010 that he was "always planning and never acting" on suicidal thoughts.
When one of Manning's defense attorneys suggested that his client's comment about the elastic band was simply a sarcastic assertion that if he really wanted to kill himself he could find a way, Blenis said it wasn't interpreted that way.
"When we're talking about suicidal statements or actions, sarcasm is out of the picture," Blenis testified. "I don't go to an airport and joke about a bomb."
PLEA DEAL SOUGHT
Defense attorneys on Sunday sought to establish that Manning's reluctance to engage with his counselors at the brig was simply a lack of common interests.
Manning was confined to a 48-square-foot (4.46-square-metre) cell for up 23 hours a day, his lawyers said, while the Pentagon said he had to sleep naked and was woken repeatedly during the night to check that he was safe.
Manning was arrested in Iraq in May 2010 and charged with downloading a trove of intelligence documents, diplomatic cables and combat video while working with the 10th Mountain Division's 2nd Brigade intelligence operation in Iraq.
Among the material Manning is suspected of leaking is a classified video of a 2007 helicopter attack that killed a dozen people in Iraq, including two Reuters journalists.
WikiLeaks, which posted that video in April, 2010, has never confirmed Manning was the source of any documents it released.
The mass disclosure of U.S. secrets by WikiLeaks beginning in 2010 staggered diplomats across the globe and outraged U.S. officials, who said the extraordinary damage to national security from the leaks endangered U.S. lives.
Manning was confined to an eight-foot-square "cage" for a month in Kuwait before being transferred to Virginia in July 2010, he testified earlier this week.
In April 2011 he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, where he is reportedly being held on medium security status.
The pre-trial hearing is being held at Fort Meade in Maryland.
Manning's lawyers will continue to work with the court on the language of a proposed plea involving less serious charges and a prison term of at least 16 years, one of his attorneys said.
(Reporting by Medina Roshan; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart; Writing by Chris Francescani; Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Eric Walsh)