Metro Weekly

President Obama commutes Chelsea Manning’s sentence

LGBT groups had petitioned president to grant Manning clemency for her "whistleblower"-type actions

An image of Manning sent in a April 24, 2010, email coming out to her supervisor (Photo: Chelsea Manning, via U.S. Army file).

On Tuesday evening, President Barack Obama announced he would be commuting former Army Private Chelsea Manning’s sentence for releasing classified information to the cyber-anarchist government watchdog website Wikileaks in order to raise awareness about the civilian casualties of war. Under the terms of her commuted sentence, Manning will be released from the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks in Leavenworth, Kansas, in May 2017.

“I’m relieved and thankful that the president is doing the right thing and commuting Chelsea Manning’s sentence,” Chase Strangio, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s LGBT Project, which has been representing Manning, said in a statement.

“Since she was first taken into custody, Chelsea has been subjected to long stretches of solitary confinement — including for attempting suicide — and has been denied access to medically necessary health care,” Strangio said. “This move could quite literally save Chelsea’s life, and we are all better off knowing that Chelsea Manning will walk out of prison a free woman, dedicated to making the world a better place and fighting for justice for so many.”

Manning became a darling of liberals and anti-government conservatives when she was convicted and sentenced to 35 years in prison for releasing more than 700,000 government files containing sensitive information about civilian casualties of American military actions abroad. Her lawyers have insisted she was acting as a “whistleblower” in releasing videos, diplomatic cables and other information relating mostly to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Manning’s legal team appealed her conviction, arguing it is much harsher than most other sentences for people who have disclosed classified information. Additionally, the ACLU argued that her prosecution under the Espionage Act violated the Constitution because it results in prosecutions where a court gives no consideration to the public interest, and allows the government to selectively prosecute disfavored or unpopular speakers.

In addition to the ACLU, dozens of LGBT groups had previously written a letter to Obama asking him to grant Manning clemency. Activists also filed an official White House petition asking to commute Manning’s sentence garnered over 100,000 signatures, necessitating a response from the White House under its public petition guidelines. 

During her time in custody, Manning frequently butted heads with the Department of Defense over her treatment at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks. Enlisting the help of the ACLU, she sued the department over its refusal to allow her to receive treatment and special considerations to accommodate her gender dysphoria, including requests for hormones and to grow her hair out beyond the prescribed length for male prisoners at the barracks. After being sued, the government agreed to allow her to receive hormones, and eventually, following a hunger strike, gender confirmation surgery.

“Granting clemency in this compelling case exemplifies the values President Obama has demonstrated throughout his presidency,” Mara Keisling, the executive director of the National Center for Transgender Equality, said in a statement. “He has been a staunch advocate for the civil rights and human dignity of all people, including transgender people. He has stood up for the basic rights of individuals who are incarcerated, and his administration worked to reduce mass incarceration and eliminate inhumane conditions, including the extreme abuse too often faced by transgender prisoners.

“President Obama has been a strong advocate for second chances and has granted clemency to nearly 1,600 Americans,” she added. “At a moment when civil rights are threatened, we are deeply grateful to this president for a decision that may very well have saved this woman’s life.”

But not all LGBT people were happy about the commutation of Manning’s sentence, particularly those with military ties or on the political Right. Giving voice to those concerns was the Log Cabin Republicans, which issued its own statement, noting that “Log Cabin Republicans has always condemned Manning’s actions, and consistently stood against efforts by the left to elevate Manning as a paragon of the LGBT community.”

“Chelsea Manning is no hero, and the commutation of her sentence is appalling,” said Gregory T. Angelo, the group’s president. “Manning was not imprisoned for being transgender — in fact, the government agreed to accommodate and facilitate her transition during her well-deserved sentence; she was imprisoned for traitorous clandestine activity that put military lives at risk. Her actions — and President Obama’s clemency — are nothing to celebrate.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to include reaction from the Log Cabin Republicans.

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John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com