Do You Know Chelsea Manning? You Should.

On Wednesday among 209 individuals, President Obama (while we can still say so) granted Chelsea Manning a commutation of sentence. It was one of the most talked about news worldwide. Yet, many people don’t know who she is and why did this collectively spark tears of gratitude worldwide. Here’s what is happening.

Background

Bradley Manning was a transgender US Army intelligence analyst. This Oklahoma native was legally granted the right to be recognised as Chelsea Manning later. As a child, Manning was exceptionally talented with an affinity towards computers. Though presenting as a boy, she dressed as a girl at times, feeling extraordinarily afraid of revealing her secret. Manning had been the subject of bullying both at school as well as in the Army. She’d joined to partly mitigate her desire to exist openly as a woman.

After having endured harsh bullying while in the Army, Manning was sent to Iraq in 2009. Being an intelligence analyst gave her access to classified information. Soon she recognised most of it to be “profoundly disturbing”. She attempted to contact several news organisations, failing which she gave hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks. These included videos showing unarmed citizens being killed, war logs about Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, private cables from the State Department and assessments of Guantánamo prisoners. The leak was one of the largest breaches of classified material in the US history.

While facing demotion due to behavioral issues, she reached out to a hacker online and confided in him about the leaks. The hacker Adrian Lamo then contacted the US Government, which led to Manning’s arrest in 2010. She pleaded guilty of storing and leaking military information. Her intentions were to encourage debate, and not to aid any enemy of the United States. Oddly despite pleading not guilty to other charges her court martial continued. She was found guilty of espionage, theft and computer fraud among other things and sentenced to 35 years in prison. She was also dishonourably discharged, reduced in rank and forced to forfeit all pay.

“No whistleblower in American history has been sentenced this harshly” – Manning’s attorneys

Identity

After her sentencing, Manning announced she identifies as female and wished to begin hormone therapy. The army provided hormone therapy while imposing needless restrictions such as on her hair length. Sparing no expense to harass her, the authorities threatened her with solitary confinement. She faced harsh treatment, like being kept in solitary confinement in a small cell, without pillows or sheets. She was watched over as a “suicide risk” and kept naked at times.

The instances of solitary confinement and suicide attempts grew, so did the international outcry for her release. Over 117,000 people, including human rights activists, lawyers and celebrities petitioned President Obama for commuting her sentence, which has now been done. By May 2017, Manning would have served 7 years of her sentence.

In America, a commutation means the sentence is lifted but several civil handicaps remain. It is not an acknowledgment of innocence.

Reaction

Several Republicans condemned the move, while Manning’s family celebrated and expressed their gratitude. Senator John McCain fears it may encourage espionage.

“I don’t think she (Manning) should have spent a single day in prison.” – Glenn Greenwald, journalist

Snowden

Heartbreakingly, Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, was not granted a pardon. Snowden became an iconic figure after exposing United States’ mass surveillance programs. After his leaks, a Congress a historic NSA reform bill was passed, an appeals court ruled mass surveillance as illegal, and tech companies began using encryption to protect privacy. Despite more than a million petitioners, the White House considers Snowden’s disclosures more damaging. While Manning had gone through the judicial system, Snowden fled to Russia in 2013.

Meanwhile the incoming President Trump, in his usual charming manner reminded us that “there is still a thing called execution,” when it comes to Snowden.

On the bright side, Russian authorities have agreed to extend his asylum by 2 years. In a powerful move, Snowden tweeted to thank Obama for this commutation in a tweet.

Previously, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange had agreed to be extradited to US, should Manning be granted clemency. It is unclear whether he now plans to surrender. However, after seeing how Manning was treated, we hope not.

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