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Obama Commutes Most of Chelsea Manning's Sentence

Chelsea Manning

In one of his final acts in office, President Obama has commuted most of Chelsea Manning’s sentence for leaking secret government documents.

White House officials announced Tuesday that Manning will be freed from military prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., May 17, The New York Times reports. Without the commutation, she would have served until 2045.

Manning, who came out as transgender in 2013, has been imprisoned since 2010. As an Army intelligence analyst deployed in Iraq in 2009 and 2010, she leaked incident reports from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with diplomatic cables, to WikiLeaks, which shared them with major media outlets.

The documents “exposed abuses of detainees by Iraqi military officers working with American forces and showed that civilian deaths in the Iraq war were likely much higher than official estimates,” the Times notes. Manning also leaked video of a U.S. helicopter attack in Iraq that killed two journalists.

Manning’s 35-year sentence was the longest ever imposed on a leaker; most are one to three years, the Times reports. Manning frequently reported that she was mistreated in the men’s prison — denied exercise, subjected to bullying, forced to adhere to male grooming standards, punished for having reading materials, including The Advocate, that were not approved by prison officials. In the past year, she has gone on a hunger strike — for which she was sentenced to two weeks of solitary confinement — and has twice attempted suicide.

Manning had sought commutation but not a pardon. She petitioned to have her sentence reduced to time served. “I am not asking for a pardon of my conviction,” she wrote in a statement provided to the media in November. “I understand that the various collateral consequences of the court-martial conviction will stay on my record forever. The sole relief I am asking for is to be released from military prison after serving six years of confinement as a person who did not intend to harm the interests of the United States or harm any service members.” At her trial, there was no evidence presented indicating service members were killed because of her actions.

White House officials today said there were major differences between Manning’s case and that of another well-known leaker, National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. “Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest, according to the Times. “Mr. Snowden fled into the arms of an adversary and has sought refuge in a country [Russia] that most recently made a concerted effort to undermine confidence in our democracy.” Also, the documents leaked by Snowden were classified at a higher level of secrecy than those leaked by Manning, Earnest said.

Manning’s release also means the military will not be responsible for her transition-related medical procedures, which it had refused to provide for several years before finally, last fall, making a promise to do so. While she now will have to seek health care on the outside, her supporters praised the commutation.

“I’m relieved and thankful that the president is doing the right thing and commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence,” said Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project representing Manning, in a press release. “Since she was first taken into custody, Chelsea has been subjected to long stretches of solitary confinement — including for attempting suicide — and has been denied access to medically necessary health care. This move could quite literally save Chelsea’s life, and we are all better off knowing that Chelsea Manning will walk out of prison a free woman, dedicated to making the world a better place and fighting for justice for so many.”

“Granting clemency in this compelling case exemplifies the values President Obama has demonstrated throughout his presidency,” added Mara Keisling, executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, in a prepared statement. “He has been a staunch advocate for the civil rights and human dignity of all people, including transgender people. He has stood up for the basic rights of individuals who are incarcerated, and his administration worked to reduce mass incarceration and eliminate inhumane conditions, including the extreme abuse too often faced by transgender prisoners. President Obama has been a strong advocate for second chances and has granted clemency to nearly 1,600 Americans. At a moment when civil rights are threatened, we are deeply grateful to this president for a decision that may very well have saved this woman’s life.”

“Chelsea’s release is massive victory for free speech, human rights, and democracy,” said a statement released by another Manning supporter, Evan Greer, campaign director for Fight for the Future. “As someone who has become friends with Chelsea over the last year, but has never had a chance to see her face or give her a hug, I’m overjoyed that she will be able to share her beautiful self with the world. She has so much to offer, and her freedom will be a testament to the power of grassroots organizing. I’m so excited for the world to get to know her as the compassionate, intelligent, and kind person who she is.”

And this statement came from one of Manning's highest-profile allies, musician Michael Stipe of REM fame: “Incredible courage on the part of both Obama and Chelsea Manning!! What a thrilling day for true patriots!!” 

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