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CHELSEA MANNING has said that when she’s released today she’s looking forward to “breathing the warm spring air again.”
In fact, the weather in Leavenworth County in Kansas is topping 30 degrees celsius this week, so after seven years in military detention, this now famous whistleblower will finally step out of the disciplinary barracks at the US army’s Fort Leavenworth base on a rather hot and sultry day.
The 29-year-old will be free at last, closing a painful chapter on what has been an extraordinary and thoroughly disturbing saga. This brave, principled — but also vulnerable — person has been put through the wringer.
While Manning is “fortunate” enough to have received a commutation of her crushing 35-year jail sentence, she has still spent seven long years behind bars, with extended periods of solitary confinement so harsh that the UN’s torture expert Juan Mendez considered it tantamount to torture.
Manning has been branded a traitor — not least by current president Donald Trump. There were calls for her to receive the death sentence. As it was, she was charged with numerous serious offences, including the extremely grave “aiding the enemy” (of which she was acquitted).
Yet despite all of the vitriol poured over her by members of the US military and political Establishments, Manning is nothing less than an honourable whistleblower who felt compelled to tell the world about apparent US wrongdoing in its military conduct in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Working as a US intelligence analyst in Iraq, Manning began to see documents that convinced her that the US military was committing war crimes overseas and doing nothing to bring the perpetrators to justice. Worse, it may well have been deliberately covering up such conduct.
The best-known example was the attack by two US Apache helicopters on a group of civilians in the al-Amin al-Thaniyah district of Baghdad on July 12 2007.
At least 12 people were killed, including two Reuters reporters, Saeed Chmagh and Namir NoorEldeen.
While it was far from the only occasion when US military conduct in Iraq was highly dubious, here was vivid cockpit video and audio laying bare the callous behaviour of the US pilots. Some of their cockpit commentary includes language like: “Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards … nice. Nice. Good shootin’.”
Was this disclosure in the public interest? Like the Abu Ghraib torture photos or the Pentagon Papers on the Vietnam war, it’s hard to see how it wouldn’t be.
Reuters had previously tried — and failed — to obtain the helicopter footage through a freedom of information request. Manning — via WikiLeaks — provided the material.
What happened to Manning as a result of her whistleblowing is well-known.
The revelations over wrongdoing (including the Baghdad helicopter attack) went un-investigated, while Manning herself was court-martialled and given the longest sentence in US history for leaking information.
This low-ranking, twenty-something was punished in such a way as to send an unmistakable message to other would-be whistleblowers.
Ahead of Manning’s court martial in the summer of 2013, Edward Snowden had exposed a previously unknown global apparatus of surveillance being run by the US’s National Security Agency.
If the US authorities couldn’t get Snowden (who was granted asylum in Russia), they could certainly punish Manning.
You might think the US military authorities wouldn’t stoop to vindictiveness when punishing one of their own, but you’d be wrong.
During eight months of pre-trial solitary confinement at the US marine corps base Quantico in Virginia, Manning was kept in a windowless 12-feet-by-six-feet cell containing only a bed, a toilet and a sink.
After putting Manning on suicide watch, the Quantico authorities subjected her to a regime of draconian and demeaning rules: clothing and glasses confiscated, required to observe strict verbal commands and replies, even at one point having to sleep and stand to attention completely naked.
In an Amnesty podcast from last year, Manning recounts how: “The conditions in my cell were far beyond what is normally associated with solitary confinement. I needed permission to do anything in my cell. I was not allowed to move around the cell to exercise. I was not allowed to sit down with my back against the wall.”
It was all clearly designed to break Manning down ahead of her court martial, and the UN believed it was part of “an effort to coerce her into ‘co-operation’ with the authorities,” possibly to pressure her into implicating others.
Post-conviction the vindictiveness continued. Having announced immediately after receiving her swingeing sentence an intention to transition to a female identity, Manning has had to fight a long and arduous battle for recognition of her right to do this.
On top of being an embattled military whistleblower, she’s had to become an embattled trans campaigner struggling within a rigid and deeply unsympathetic environment.
Despite bleak periods, Manning has come through. Against the odds, she’s survived. And now she’ll regain her freedom on a warm summer’s day in Kansas.
In so many ways Manning is the epitome of a human rights defender — someone who takes personal risks to stand up for the rights of others. At Amnesty we have a word for people like that.
It’s called being brave.
- Kate Allen is Amnesty International UK director.
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