President Obama has commuted Chelsea Manning’s sentence, according to a report from The New York Times. While not technically a pardon, the order reduces Manning’s sentence from 35 years to just over seven years, the majority of which Manning has already served. As a result, Manning is due to be released from federal custody in just five months, on May 17th.
While serving as an intelligence analyst in Iraq, Manning leaked more than 700,000 documents to WikiLeaks, including video of a 2007 airstrike in Baghdad that killed two Reuters employees. In 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison for her role in the leak and has been held at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth for the past three years.
Julian Assange, who has long been sought by U.S. and E.U. authorities for extradition on Swedish rape charges, had previously pledged to surrender himself to U.S. authorities if Manning was pardoned.
The news was welcomed by many in Manning’s legal support team. “Obama may well have just saved Chelsea Manning's life,” said Sarah Harrison, who has defended Manning as Active Director of the Courage nonprofit. “Freeing her is clearly and unambiguously the right thing to do.”
At the same time, Harrison did not shy away from continued criticism of President Obama. “Today's news will not make good the harm done on Obama's watch,” she continued. “Chelsea's conviction under the Espionage Act and 35-year sentence set a terrible precedent that is left entirely intact by this commutation. Who knows what Donald Trump will do with this precedent, and these powers, that Obama has left him?"
Born Bradley Manning, Chelsea announced her gender transition the day after the verdict was handed down. “I am Chelsea Manning. I am a female,” she said in a statement. “Given the way that I feel, and have felt since childhood, I want to begin hormone therapy as soon as possible.” Obtaining the resulting medical treatments was extremely difficult for Manning, and was the subject of significant and sustained activism. After a lawsuit, Manning was approved for hormone therapy in 2015. In September 2016, she launched a hunger strike, demanding access to gender reassignment surgery; the military complied five days later. Notably, today’s commutation means many of the resulting procedures may take place after Manning’s release.
The commutation was part of a larger effort that included 209 commutations and 64 pardons, issued just three days before President-elect Donald Trump is scheduled to take office. President Obama has now issued 1,385 grants of commutation over the course of his two terms, the most granted by any president.
“We must remember that clemency is an extraordinary remedy, granted only after the President has concluded that a particular individual has demonstrated a readiness to make use of his or her second chance,” White House counsel Neil Eggleston said in a statement. “Only Congress can achieve the broader reforms needed to ensure over the long run that our criminal justice system operates more fairly and effectively in the service of public safety.”
A number of groups have called on President Obama to pardon Edward Snowden, who is currently living in Russia under threat of US espionage charges. Thus far, the president has declined to do so, citing the absence of an active court hearing on Snowden’s charges. “I can't pardon somebody who hasn't gone before a court and presented themselves,” Obama told Der Spiegel in November.
Speaking to the Times after the order, a White House spokesman affirmed the earlier statements, drawing a stark distinction between Manning and Snowden. “Chelsea Manning is somebody who went through the military criminal justice process, was exposed to due process, was found guilty, was sentenced for her crimes, and she acknowledged wrongdoing,” the spokesperson said.
On Twitter, Snowden applauded the news. “In five more months, you will be free,“ he wrote on Twitter. “Thank you for what you did for everyone, Chelsea. Stay strong a while longer!”