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WikiLeaks' Assange: Manning verdicts a 'clear abuse' of First Amendment rights

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WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has condemned the guilty verdicts passed on Pfc. Bradley Manning as a “clear abuse” of the First Amendment, ahead of the former Army intelligence analyst’s sentencing hearing Wednesday.

Assange said Manning, 25, and NSA leaker Edward Snowden, 30, who is currently in limbo in international arrivals at an airport in Moscow, were both heroes.

“They were willing to risk their lives and liberty to defend the rest of us,” he said.

Assange was speaking Tuesday from Ecuador’s embassy to London after skipping bail amid attempts to deport him from the U.K. to Sweden over allegations of sexual assault.

Manning -- branded both a whistle-blower and a traitor after he sent 700,000 secret government documents to WikiLeaks -- was acquitted Tuesday of the most serious charge of aiding an enemy, but convicted of 20 other charges, including seven dealing with espionage.

The charges of which Manning was convicted carry a total of 136 years in prison if the sentences are imposed consecutively.

The sentencing phase of the court-martial, which could take several weeks, begins Wednesday morning. Because it was a general court-martial, Manning gets an automatic appeal to the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, probably within six months of sentencing.

His lawyer, David Coombs, told cheering supporters that the verdict was a “huge, huge victory.”

But Assange said the aiding an enemy charge had always been “absurd” and had only been put forward to detract from the other charges.

He said the convictions were a "clear abuse" of First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press and Espionage Act, and that the only just verdict would have acquittal on all counts. He warned the judge’s verdict set a “dangerous precedent.”

“This was never a fair trial,” he told reporters, according to the U.K. Press Association.

Manning’s decision to leak the information was “unquestionably heroic,” Assange added, continuing his refusal to comment on whether the soldier was actually the source of the leaks.

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However he also described Manning as the best journalistic source the world had ever seen, saying he had uncovered war crimes in Iraq.

“We are pleased that throughout this case no evidence was produced from WikiLeaks against Bradley Manning,” he said.

“The allegation against him is that he spoke to a U.S. informer who turned him in. Our processes have been successful.”

“It is of great concern to us to see any national security source victimized, but we have chosen not to enter into a debate over whether he is one of our sources.”

Assange said he expected Manning to appeal and that “WikiLeaks will not rest until he is free.”

Manning has said he was disillusioned by an American foreign policy bent on “killing and capturing people” when he released the documents, including battlefield reports and diplomatic cables, in 2010.

In a closing argument at the court-martial, Coombs argued that Manning was “trying to ply his knowledge to hopefully save lives.” Manning was also young and naïve and thought he could make a difference, the lawyer added.

Military prosecutors said Manning was not a whistle-blower but a traitor. They said Manning knew that enemies of the United States use WikiLeaks as a resource, and they said some of the documents he released wound up in the hands of al Qaeda.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich., and Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger, D-Md., the chairman and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that justice was served by Tuesday’s verdict.

“PFC Manning harmed our national security, violated the public’s trust, and now stands convicted of multiple serious crimes,” they said in a joint statement. “There is still much work to be done to reduce the ability of criminals like Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden to harm our national security.”

The White House and State Department said they had no comment.

Manning has been jailed at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., since April 2011 and was at the military prison in Quantico, Va., for nine months before that.

Among his defenders is Daniel Ellsberg, who in 1971 leaked what become known as the Pentagon Papers to The New York Times. Those papers showed that the government was systematically misleading the public about U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski, Courtney Kube, Katie Wall and Erin McClam contributed to this report.

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