Chelsea Manning, the transgendered former US Army intelligence analyst who was in prison for leaking state secrets, has walked free from the military detention facility at Fort Leavenworth, Kan.—28 years early.
Manning’s support network has raised about $138,000 in crowdsourced donations to help her transition to the outside. She said her plans include moving to Maryland, and growing out her hair, which was kept shorn in prison.
“After another anxious four months of waiting, the day has finally arrived,” she said in a statement reported by CNN. “I am looking forward to so much! Whatever is ahead of me is far more important than the past. I’m figuring things out right now—which is exciting, awkward, fun and all new for me.”
American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Chase Strangio, who represented Manning, added: “She has experienced trauma over the past seven years of her confinement and the trauma from those experiences won’t just evaporate the day she walks out of prison. It’s going be a process for her to heal and begin to live her free life with more autonomy over her gender and her decisions and vision for the future.”
President Obama in January commuted her unprecedented 35-year sentence, right on the eve of the inauguration of the controversial Donald Trump. Obama overrode his secretary of defense in doing so.
The move does not pardon her however, and she remains convicted of her crimes, which include stealing and disseminating 750,000 pages of documents and videos to WikiLeaks. Manning was never convicted on the most serious charge that she faced: Aiding the enemy, which would qualify as treason and would have carried a life sentence.
Manning was handed a 35-year sentence on a host of charges, including communicating national defense information to an unauthorized source, to, following a courtroom confession back in 2013, when she was still Pfc. Bradley Manning.
In 2009 and 2010, Manning admitted that she—he at the time—smuggled out several SD disks with reams of classified information, including contents of Significant Actions files, or SigActs, which detail military actions on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Manning said in the confession that the motivations for betraying US secrets involved human rights and opposition to the way the wars were carried out.
The documents she leaked included more than 250,000 diplomatic cables, in addition to hundreds of thousands of other confidential documents. These however were not classified as “top secret,” and Manning is seen as a whistleblower by her supporters.
Supporters, which include the ACLU, Amnesty International and digital rights group Fight for the Future, have said that the commutation is an act of human mercy, as Manning has faced what they characterize as cruel and unusual punishment in prison. In 2015 for instance, a military court found her guilty of four charges, which included possession of LGBTQ reading material like the Caitlyn Jenner issue of Vanity Fair, and having a tube of expired toothpaste in her cell. For that, she received 21 days of recreational restrictions, excluding her from time in the gym, library and outdoors.
Manning said at the time that she had done nothing to warrant the hearing other than speak out on the treatment of prisoners and her struggle as a trans woman behind bars. She also said that the whole thing started when she complained that military correctional staff denied her access to the prison legal library. During the closed disciplinary hearing, Manning was required to present her own defense—the ACLU said that she’s been denied an attorney as punishment for unruly behavior.
In June 2016, Manning attempted to take her own life. A prison disciplinary hearing subsequently found her guilty of “conduct which threatens” because of it, along with a charge for prohibited property for possessing an unmarked copy of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, by Gabriella Coleman. She received seven days of solitary confinement.
Manning spent about seven years in prison—already beyond the norm for the time spent by perpetrators in any other leaks case. Her punishment and treatment has been held up in juxtaposition with that of General David Petraeus, who leaked secrets that were in fact classified as top secret to his ghostwriter and mistress, and, the FBI alleged, to outside reporters. For that, he received only probation and a fine of $100,000.