The U.S. soldier Bradley Manning took the stand on Wednesday at his sentencing hearing in the WikiLeaks case and apologized for hurting his country, pleading with a military judge for a chance to go to college and become a productive citizen.

“I am sorry that my actions hurt people. I’m sorry that they hurt the United States,” Manning said.

The soldier said that he understood what he was doing but that he did not believe at the time that leaking a mountain of classified information to the anti-secrecy website would cause harm to the U.S.

Manning, 25, could be sentenced to 90 years in prison for the leaks, which occurred while he was working as an Army intelligence analyst in Iraq in 2010. The judge will impose the sentence, though exactly when is unclear. The next session, for any prosecution rebuttal testimony, is set for Friday.

The release of diplomatic cables, warzone logs and videos was the largest leak of documents in U.S. history. It included a video of a 2007 U.S. helicopter attack that killed civilians in Iraq, including a Reuters news photographer and his driver.

Though he often showed little reaction to court proceedings during most of the two and a half month court-martial, Manning appeared to struggle to contain his emotions several times Wednesday during testimony from his sister, an aunt and two mental health counsellors, one who treated him and another who diagnosed him with several problems.

Speaking quickly but deliberately, Manning took only a few minutes to make his statement Wednesday. He appeared to be reading it from papers he was holding and looked up a number of times to make eye contact with the judge. It was an unsworn statement, meaning he could not be cross-examined by prosecutors.

Defense attorney David Coombs told Manning supporters that Manning’s heart was in the right place.

“His one goal was to make this world a better place,” Coombs said.

Manning’s apology could carry substantial weight with the military judge, said Eugene Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale.

“He faces extraordinarily long confinement and if he is coming across subjectively as contrite, I think that may do him some real good with the sentencing,” Mr. Fidell said.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said the only currency the military will take is Manning’s humiliation, and he believed the apology was forced.

“Mr. Manning’s apology is a statement extorted from him under the overbearing weight of the United States military justice system. It took three years and millions of dollars to extract two minutes of tactical remorse from this brave soldier,” Mr. Assange said in a statement.

Manning’s attorneys contend he showed clear signs of deteriorating mental health that should have prevented commanders from sending him to a war zone to handle classified information.

Manning eventually came out to Capt. Michael Worsley, emailing the therapist a photo of himself in a long, blond wig and lipstick. The photo was attached to a letter titled “My problem,” in which Manning described his trouble and his hope that a military career would “get rid of it.”

Worsley testified Wednesday that the soldier was struggling under extreme conditions.

“You put him in that kind of hyper-masculine environment, if you will, with little support and few coping skills, the pressure would have been difficult to say the least,” Mr. Worsley said. “It would have been incredible.”

Mr. Worsley’s testimony portrayed some military leaders as lax at best and obstructionist at worst when it came to tending to soldiers with mental health problems.

“I questioned why they would want to leave somebody in a position with the issue they had,” Mr. Worsley said.

Navy Capt. David Moulton, a psychiatrist who spent 21 hours interviewing Manning at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, after his arrest, testified as a defence witness that Manning’s gender identity disorder, combined with narcissistic personality traits, idealism and his lack of friends in Iraq, caused him to conclude he could change the world by leaking classified information.

“He became very enthralled with this idea that the things that he was finding were injustices that he felt he morally needed to right,” Mr. Moulton said.

“His decision-making capacity was influenced by the stress of his situation for sure,” Mr. Moulton said. “He was under severe emotional stress at the time of the alleged offenses.”

Moulton also reported for the first time in open court that Manning has symptoms of fatal alcohol syndrome and Asperger syndrome, which is an autism spectrum disorder.

Also on Wednesday, Manning’s sister Casey Major, 36, testified that they grew up with two alcoholic parents in a rural home in Oklahoma. She said their mother attempted suicide after Brian Manning left his wife when Bradley Manning was 12.

After looking tearfully at a series of childhood photographs presented by defence attorney David Coombs, Major said that Manning has matured since his arrest.

“I just hope he can be who he wants to be. I hope he can be happy,” she said.

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