Chelsea Manning was released from a Kansas prison early this morning after serving seven years for her role in whistleblowing about the US government’s wrongful actions in Iraq and elsewhere. She had originally been sentenced to 35-years in prison but president Obama, perhaps seeking some forgiveness for the atrocious way that he and his administration vindictively went after her, commuted her sentence in one of his last acts before leaving office. Her punishment was the largest ever given to a whistleblower
During her incarceration, she was treated very badly, not just for her actions but also because of being transgender.
Her seven-year ordeal has seen her held captive in Iraq, Kuwait and the US, always in male-only detention facilities. In that time, she has waged a relentless legal battle to be respected as a transgender woman, winning the right to receive hormone treatment but still being subjected to male-standard hair length and dress codes.
But her legal troubles are not over because Obama did not give her a full pardon but just commuted her sentence.
Obama’s decision to release the soldier early leaves her with legal challenges still hanging over her. Foremost of those is the fact that her sentence from 2013 under the Espionage Act remains in full force ¬– a fact that her lawyers regard as ominous given the current incumbent of the White House.
As a result, even in freedom Manning will continue to press vigorously for her sentence to be overturned. Her appeal, filed almost exactly a year ago in the US army court of criminal appeals, argued that her 35-year sentence was “perhaps the most unjust sentence in the history of the military justice system”.
Because the appeal of her criminal conviction is still pending, Manning is still considered a member of the military.
Manning is still considered to be on active duty in the Army until her criminal appeal is complete. Hammond explained that when service members are sentenced to a punitive discharge (in Manning’s case, a dishonorable discharge), that part of the sentence is not executed until the appellate process is complete. Thus, Manning’s dishonorable discharge is not effective until the Army Court of Criminal Appeals has issued a decision and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has either denied a petition or granted it and issued a decision.
According to Hammond, Manning is “in the middle of her appeal, she is still very much in the Army, on active duty, subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” When Soldiers are in the middle of an appeal and not in confinement, the Army places them on “involuntary excess leave,” otherwise known as “appellate leave” i.e. unpaid leave. They are not “discharged” until the appeal is done.
Manning is now Private E-1, explained Hammond. Part of her sentence reduced her in rank from a PFC (E-3) to a PVT (E-1). According to Hammond, Manning will have all of the military benefits of an active duty soldier upon her release because she will not be dishonorably discharged until her appeal is complete (and that is assuming the appellate court affirms the punitive discharge).
Manning’s case is an example of a powerful, vindictive system choosing to make one person an example by punishing them harshly.
“The day that Manning is released from prison should be a day of unadulterated joy for me,” Coombs wrote. “But it’s not. It is a day that I am reflecting on how the military justice system could veer so far off course.”
The lawyer added that “the particular constellation of players involved in this case, the desire to make an example out of Manning, and the ‘win at all costs’ mentality of the prosecution created a powder keg where the ability to achieve a just result was impossible. So I don’t see Manning’s commutation as a victory. I see it as an unfortunate failure of military justice to do its job.”
The transition to life outside prison will be hard for Manning, not least because of the many haters out there. But there are also many people who have been strongly supportive of her and will rally round and Manning has issued a hopeful statement upon release.
“I appreciate the wonderful support that I have received from so many people across the world over these past years. As I rebuild my life, I remind myself not to relive the past. The past will always affect me and I will keep that in mind while remembering that how it played out is only my starting point, not my final destination.”
So for the moment at least, let us join with her family and friends in the joy of Manning’s freedom.
Speaking from her prison cell as she prepared for release last week, Manning said: “I’m looking forward to breathing the warm spring air again.
“I want that indescribable feeling of connection with people and nature again, without razor wire or a visitation booth. I want to be able to hug my family and friends again. And swimming – I want to go swimming!”
Manning’s mother, Susan Manning, who is Welsh, told the Press Association that she was rejoicing at news of the release. “I am so proud of Chelsea and delighted she will finally be free again.”
Manning moved to Haverfordwest in Wales in 2001 when she was 14 to live with her mother, but returned to the US where she was born and brought up after school ended.
Susan Manning said: “It is going to be very hard for her to readjust after so long inside the prison’s four walls and I’m happy she will be staying in Maryland where she has family to look out for her. Chelsea is so intelligent and talented, I hope she now has the chance to go to college to complete her studies, and to do and be whatever she wants. My message to Chelsea? Two words: ‘Go, girl!’”