With less than three days left in office, President Obama commuted much of Chelsea Manning’s remaining prison sentence. Manning is set to be freed in May 2017 instead of finishing her 35-year sentence which would have ended in 2045.
Manning, an army intelligence analyst, was convicted of a military leak in 2010 that shed light on abuses of detainees carried out by Iraqi military working with American forces and showed civilian deaths in the Iraq war were much higher than officials suggested, among other secret information. Manning made the files public in order to incite “worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms.” Wikileaks made the information known and was how the group came to prominence.
Prosecutors charged Manning with multiple counts of the Espionage Act as well as “aiding the enemy,” which later was dropped. Manning pleaded guilty to many of the charges brought against her in hopes for leniency in her sentencing but instead was met with the harshest punishment for a leak case.
“I take full and complete responsibility for my decision to disclose those materials to the public,” Manning wrote in her clemency application. “I have never made any excuses for what I did. I pleaded guilty without the protection of a plea agreement because I believed the military justice system would understand my motivation for the disclosure and sentence me fairly. I was wrong.”
She received a 35-year sentence and has been incarcerated at a male military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, which has proved to be more tortuous punishment for Manning since coming out as a trans woman.
She endured solitary confinement for 11 months during her pretrial confinement at Quantico and then was denied treatment from the prison for her gender dysphoria even though military doctors diagnosed her since 2010. After the ACLU pressured the military to allow Manning to live her life as a woman, they only allowed Manning to take hormones, wear women’s undergarments and some makeup, but have not allowed her to grow her hair longer than the male military-standard haircut and have not given her access to a surgeon that she can talk to about possible bottom surgery. All these factors have made it extremely difficult for Manning to live her truth as a trans woman. In the past year alone, Manning has attempted to kill herself twice. To add insult to injury, she was punished for her suicide attempt in July with solitary confinement.
In November, Manning applied for clemency, desperately asking Obama to commute her sentence to time served so that way she has a chance to live. “I have spent almost all of my adult life either homeless, in the military or in prison,” she wrote. “I haven’t had the chance to live my life yet.”
Last week, NBC News reported that Manning was on Obama’s shortlist for commutation. As President, Obama is granted power under the US constitution to fully pardon individuals who have been convicted of crimes, or to commute their sentences. Since November when Manning applied for clemency, many have urged Obama to commute Manning’s sentence saying it would solidify his legacy as “standing up for trans people’s rights.”
“The Obama administration has done many commendable things to protect the rights of LGBTQ people, but in the case of Chelsea Manning they have systematically mistreated her and denied her access to medically recommended gender-related healthcare,” Chase Strangio, the ACLU lawyer who represents Manning, told the Guardian. “Chelsea won’t survive another five years in prison, much less another 30.”
It’s still unclear how Obama’s decision may play out in regards to Wikileaks founder, accused rapist and seeming Russian hacking sympathizer Julian Assange, who has previously said he would allow himself to be extradited to the US where he would face prosecution if Obama granted Chelsea Manning clemency before his term ended. Currently Assange is “within the confines of the Ecuadorean embassy in London,” where he has sought political asylum for the past five years. At this time neither Assange nor Wikileaks have issued a statement.
As Friday fast approaches and our country’s impending doom under a Trump presidency will come to actualization, this was one of the last good things Obama could’ve done for us and for Chelsea Manning. He saved Chelsea Manning’s life and allowed her time to live, live, live — free from the confines of a male prison and out in the world as a trans woman. Credit goes to the trans citizens and activists who have worked tirelessly for Manning’s safety and freedom for many years now.