The first time Chelsea Manning wore clothing that matched her gender, she was on leave in the U.S. from her deployment to Iraq. In her column published in The Guardian, she wrote, “Joy, confidence and security can’t begin until we are able to just be ourselves.”
That was 2010. Three years later she was in military court, charged with aiding the enemy, violating the Espionage Act and leaking more than 700,000 classified reports which came to be known as the Iraq War Logs. She was acquitted of aiding the enemy, the most serious of all of the charges. It was the largest military leak in U.S. history.
Manning, a U.S. Army soldier and transgender woman, is currently serving a 35-year sentence for releasing confidential documents and video footage to WikiLeaks. Her punishment is the longest period of incarceration awarded to any leaker in U.S. history.
Although her offense is serious, her mistreatment while in U.S. custody has been nothing short of nightmarish and has become a serious human rights issue.
Manning was held in solitary confinement for 11 months before her trial, according to the United Nations, which has accused the U.S. government of inhumane treatment toward her in their 2012 special rapporteur on torture. She was placed in solitary confinement on multiple occasions for reasons including having prohibited items in her cell, resisting being transferred and after her first suicide attempt. It took the government 18 months to grant her request for hormone treatments for gender dysphoria and she is still required to wear male military dress. During that time, she went on hunger strike and attempted suicide twice.
This is Obama’s opportunity to set a precedent that solitary confinement is extremely dangerous and harmful, but also that transgender rights are human rights, and that withholding hormone treatments and psychological treatment is inhumane. Obama must consider the ethical standards he’s abiding by should he allow Manning to continue with her current sentence.
Forcing Manning to finish her prison sentence, potentially with more solitary confinement, would justify her mistreatment as well as any current and future incarcerated trans people. It would also send a clear message to future whistleblowers that their efforts to reveal the moral failings of their government will only be met with harsh punishment.
Though the released reports did little perceivable damage to national security, Brig. Gen. Robert Carr testified that no lives had been lost and no reprisals had occurred because of Manning’s actions, but they did tarnish the validity of the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq.
The reports detail 109,032 deaths in Iraq — 66,081 of which were civilian deaths — over the span of four years of military occupation. In one video, an Apache helicopter pilot fires upon a group of men, two of which were Iraqi journalists working for Reuters, whose cameras were mistaken for weapons. A van arrives at the scene to pick up the wounded men, and is fired upon as well. Two children wounded in the van were evacuated by U.S. ground forces, who arrived at the scene as the Apache helicopters continued to circle overhead.
Commutations reduce the sentence of those convicted of a federal offense. President Obama has granted 148 pardons and 1,176 commutations, more than any other president has granted. American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and LGBT groups have been lobbying president Obama to commute Manning’s sentences. Obama leaves office Jan. 20 and she has yet to be commuted, although she has been added to his short list.
In a speech last year, Obama criticized the justice system as being “not as fair as it should be,” according to The Washington Post. If Obama is using his executive powers to correct for some of the ethical undoings of the justice system, then Manning’s plea should be a high priority to him. The Obama administration has made strides toward equal rights through reformed military policies regarding transgender members of service. As Obama’s presidency comes to an end, time is also running out to change Manning’s fate.
President-elect Donald Trump’s pick for national security advisor, KT McFarland, said to CNN in 2010, “Let’s charge him and try him for treason. If he’s found guilty, he should be executed.*” Many of his staff picks are outspoken about their anti-LGBTQIA+ agendas and the chances of Manning’s sentence being commuted under the Trump administration are close to none.
Regardless of the moral conditions of Manning’s decision to release government documents, her mistreatment, the length of her sentence, and the incoming chance of further misfortunes at the hands the Trump administration justify her eligibility for commutation.
*This statement was made in 2010, the transitional year for Manning.