(NEW YORK) -- Chelsea Manning walks out of military prison Wednesday after seven years of incarceration at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, a free woman after President Obama commuted her sentence three days before he left office. Her imprisonment was longer than any whistleblower in U.S. history.
In an exclusive statement to ABC News, Manning said, “I appreciate the wonderful support that I have received from so many people across the world over these past years. As I rebuild my life, I remind myself not to relive the past. The past will always affect me and I will keep that in mind while remembering that how it played out is only my starting point, not my final destination.”
In the summer of 2013, Manning was convicted by a military tribunal under the Espionage and Computer Fraud and Abuse Acts and sentenced to 35 years in prison for releasing approximately 750,000 documents to WikiLeaks, of which only small amount of those documents ultimately lead to her conviction (some of them were published by The New York Times, The Guardian, and Der Spiegel).
Manning at that time was a 22-year-old United States Army private named Bradley Manning. The information she disclosed included low level battlefield reports from Iraq and Afghanistan, evidence of civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, Guantanamo prison camp detainee profiles and U.S. diplomatic correspondence.
After he commuted her sentence, President Obama said, “It has been my view that given she went to trial, that due process was carried out, that she took responsibility for her crime, that the sentence that she received was very disproportionate relative to what other leakers had received and that she had served a significant amount of time, that it made sense to commute, and not pardon, her sentence.”
“I feel very comfortable that justice has been served,” Obama added.
Two days after her commutation, Manning tweeted: “Thank you @BarackObama for giving me a chance. =,).”
While Manning cannot physically tweet from Fort Leavenworth, she is in editorial charge of her Twitter handle as well as her website, Luminairity.com, per her legal team.
Manning began a tweet countdown to freedom starting with “105 days and a wake up =) To soft sheets, puffy blankets, and foam pillows. ^_^."
She gave a nod to Star Wars on May 4, posting, “12 more days! Celebrating a new hope, and a return of the sun. <3 #MayTheFourthBeWithYou.”
Her 35-year sentence was the heaviest handed down to a whistleblower or leaker in U.S. history. She was convicted of 17 of the 22 charges against her but acquitted of charges alleging she aided the enemy or that she intended to harm the national security interests of the country.
Lauren C. Anderson, a former FBI executive and international consultant, is a 29-year veteran of the agency who worked extensively in national security arena. She told ABC News, “I understand why Chelsea was outraged about the mistreatment of people in U.S. custody… but (leaks) put people at risk,” adding, “(Chelsea) didn’t have the authority to decide which classified information should be in the public, because she didn’t understand the bigger picture… in terms of impact, of releasing all that classified information.”
Days after Manning was sentenced, she came out as transgender on Aug. 22, 2013. The military would not provide her with any treatment for her gender dysphoria, which she claimed resulted in her escalating distress. Her ACLU lawyer, Chase Strangio, filed a lawsuit on her behalf in September 2014.
“Ultimately, we negotiated with the military and Chelsea was provided with cosmetics, grooming items available to other women in custody and hormone therapy,” Strangio told ABC News. On Feb. 11, 2017, Manning tweeted: “Wow, I can't believe today marks two years since starting hormones =o.”
“The military continued to enforce the male grooming standards against her, forcing her to cut her hair every two weeks. The part of the lawsuit challenging the restrictions on her hair is ongoing but will become moot once she is released,” Strangio added.
According to Strangio, Manning became “the first military prisoner to receive health care related to gender transition and was part of a shift in practice that lead to the elimination of the ban on open trans service in the military.” Strangio has been a part of her advocacy team for the past four years providing support on a range of issues from prison disciplinary matters to the petition for clemency to general support around her transition.
Manning was held in solitary confinement for most of the time following her arrest in May 2010 until she was sent from Quantico to Leavenworth in March 2011. She was held in solitary in Kuwait and at Quantico. She was also placed in solitary several times during her incarceration at Leavenworth following her sentencing.
In her letter to Obama asking to commute her sentence, Manning wrote: “The Army kept me in solitary confinement for nearly a year before formal charges were brought against me. It was a humiliating and degrading experience - one that altered my mind, body and spirit. I have since been placed in solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure for an attempted suicide despite a growing effort - led by the President of the United States - to stop the use of solitary confinement for any purpose.”
Manning attempted to end her life two times in the years since her 2013 sentence.
Strangio noted that while Manning herself has been the key force behind the campaign for her freedom, she was greatly aided by a team who have fought relentlessly, from her court martial attorney, David Coombs, to her appellate team of Nancy Hollander, Vince Ward, and Dave Hammond. Christina DiPasquale, founder of Balestra Media, has also been working for Manning pro bono for years to help elevate her story and as have friends across the country, including Evan Greer from “Fight for the Future.”
In December 2013, Manning wrote Hollander a letter asking if she would handle her appeal of her conviction and her sentence through the military courts. Hollander and her partner Ward immediately agreed. Manning later asked them to also assist her in applying for clemency, which they did.
Ward believed representing Manning was “simply the right thing to do.” Ward noted that Manning “took responsibility for disclosing classified information, a fact many people forget. What she fought was the allegation that she disclosed the materials to aid the enemy or to harm the nation’s national security interests. The evidence indisputably shows she thought she was doing the right thing.”
On Jan. 17, 2017, Hollander was in her office when she got a call from President Obama’s counsel at the White House: “He asked if I was Chelsea Manning’s lawyer and I said yes. He then said ‘the President has commuted her sentence to time served plus 120 days and will announce it in two minutes.’ I think I screamed 'Oh my God!'”
Hollander expressed her gratitude to Obama saying “the military claims to always take care of its Soldiers but no one ever had taken care of Chelsea until her Commander-in-chief commuted her sentence.”
Manning is still considered to be on active duty in the Army until her criminal appeal is complete. Hammond explained that when service members are sentenced to a punitive discharge (in Manning’s case, a dishonorable discharge), that part of the sentence is not executed until the appellate process is complete. Thus, Manning’s dishonorable discharge is not effective until the Army Court of Criminal Appeals has issued a decision and the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces has either denied a petition or granted it and issued a decision.
According to Hammond, Manning is “in the middle of her appeal, she is still very much in the Army, on active duty, subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.” When soldiers are in the middle of an appeal and not in confinement, the Army places them on “involuntary excess leave,” otherwise known as “appellate leave” i.e. unpaid leave. They are not “discharged” until the appeal is done.
Manning is now Private E-1, explained Hammond. Part of her sentence reduced her in rank from a PFC (E-3) to a PVT (E-1). According to Hammond, Manning will have all of the military benefits of an active duty soldier upon her release because she will not be dishonorably discharged until her appeal is complete (and that is assuming the appellate court affirms the punitive discharge).
Not many people can talk about Manning on a personal level. The Army prohibited visitors -- with the exception of her lawyers -- unless they knew her prior to her arrest. Nevertheless, she accrued, while behind bars, staunch supporters and friends.
DiPasquale worked pro-bono for the past year and a half with Manning.
“I believe in her and I believe in everyone’s right to open and affordable communications,” she explained. “Chelsea fought to communicate and her ability to stay connected and express herself was, in many ways, key to her survival and freedom,” noted DiPasquale. She described Manning as a person “driven by her values and her conscience. Despite everything she has been through, she starts every call by asking how I am doing. Her laugh is contagious and her spirit is unbreakable.”
Strangio is one of the few who speaks to Manning regularly and has met her in person. He sees her as a “funny, kind, and brilliant person who unusually empathetic and earnest. Despite all she has been through she retains a positive attitude and a beautiful and hopeful vision for the future.”
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