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Obama commutes Chelsea Manning’s sentence

After nearly seven years in unjust and abusive confinement, heroic WikiLeaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning will be free on 17 May 2017. President Obama has commuted Chelsea’s sentence, releasing her from prison in five months’ time but leaving her conviction intact.

The humanitarian argument for Chelsea Manning’s release is compelling. Chelsea’s experience in detention has been one of flagrant disregard for her mental health and basic well-being, from the cage she was held in Camp Arifjan in Kuwait to the torturous solitary confinement she was forced to experience at the Quantico Marine brig, to the continuing refusal to provide adequate medical care for her gender dysphoria. Despite this wall of resistance, Chelsea has drawn global attention to the difficulties transgender people in the military experience.

Chelsea’s treatment in the past year, three years after coming out as trans, has been especially deleterious. Chelsea attempted suicide twice over the course of 2016, and the military’s response epitomises what she has had to deal with throughout her imprisonment.

Rather than provide psychological care, the Army responded to Chelsea’s attempt by punishing her with a week in solitary confinement. When this punishment was suddenly enforced before Chelsea had the chance to appeal it, Chelsea made the second attempt on her life.

Sarah Harrison said:

Obama may well have just saved Chelsea Manning’s life. Freeing her is clearly and unambiguously the right thing to do, and not just for the obvious humanitarian reasons, though those are absolutely compelling.

Chelsea deserves her freedom, and the world’s respect, for her courageous, inspiring actions in 2010. Chelsea’s releases through WikiLeaks helped bring an end to the US war on Iraq, galvanised Arab Spring protesters and inspired subsequent truthtellers. Chelsea should also be admired for the way she has drawn international attention to battles for transgender rights and against prison abuse, in some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable.

Today’s news will not make good the harm done on Obama’s watch. Chelsea’s conviction under the Espionage Act and 35-year sentence set a terrible precedent that is left entirely intact by this commutation. Who knows what Donald Trump will do with these powers Obama has left him.

Gratitude to Barack Obama for his decision today needs to be tempered with a recognition that much of the harm caused by Chelsea’s conviction and mistreatment will not be undone by commuting her sentence. A commutation, rather than a pardon, leaves Chelsea’s unprecedented and appalling Espionage Act conviction for whistleblowing and her CFAA convictions for using common and innocuous software on the record. Chelsea’s 35 year sentence for disclosures to the media remains a dangerous precedent which will undoubtledly be used and cited to prosecute whistleblowers in the future. A full pardon is what is truly warranted and needed, and President Obama’s failure to grant it reveals his true intention: to attempt to salvage his legacy while leaving these draconian measures in his wake.