US Army officer Chelsea Manning was released from military prison on May 17 after spending nearly seven years behind bars for sharing with Wikileaks thousands of classified military and government files that exposed human rights violations and corruption committed by the US government and numerous others.
The US government pursued 22 charges against Manning, including “aiding the enemy”. Although prosecutors were never able to prove that Manning’s actions had caused the United States material harm, she was sentenced to 35 years in prison in a case rife with political controversy and seen by civil and human rights advocates as an attempt to set a severe precedent for sentencing in cases involving the leaking of classified digital documents.
Her sentence was commuted by Barack Obama in the final days of his presidency. The commutation does not absolve her of conviction, but it means that she is now free to “breathe the warm spring air,” as she put it a few days before she walked free.
Manning’s civilian lawyer David Coombs published a sobering statement on the day of her release in which he described her sentence as a “grievous wrong” committed by the military court system. He wrote:
…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 documents that Manning helped make public had an immeasurable impact on public knowledge about and response to the activities of the US and other governments. It included some of the most damning evidence of human rights violations committed by the United States in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Beyond the US, the documents demonstrated deep corruption and systemic human rights abuses by the Tunisian government under the regime of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali regime. Their release was a critical precursor to the Tunisian revolution, which brought about the Ben Ali’s ouster in January of 2011 and helped inspire a series of uprisings across the region now often referred to as the “Arab Spring.”
In a reflective blog post that he published in 2013, Tunisian activist Sami Ben Gharbia, who played a pivotal role in circulating the documents among Tunisian civil society, described the impact of her actions:
If the U.S. will take 35 years from Chelsea Manning’s life, may it console her that she has given us, Arabs, the secret gift that helped expose and topple 50 years of dictatorships.
After she was sentenced to 35 years in prison Chelsea Manning said in her statement that “Sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society.” I don’t know if she knows that she helped us, in this part of the world, to move toward that noble goal. Closing a cell door on a prisoner with a free mind has opened a thousand and one doors for a free society.
Manning will face a new set of challenges now that she is released, as she has become a high-profile person for whom harassment and threats of violence are expected to increase. Supporters of Manning have raised over US$140,000 in a Welcome Home fund, and put together a digital album featuring the artists Michael Stipe, Tom Morello and Talib Kweli to support her.