President Obama has commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who leaked American military and diplomatic cables in 2010, putting an end to one of the bleaker domestic human rights situations under his presidency.
Manning will be freed from prison in May after serving seven years in a military prison for revealing a huge amount of malfeasance by the American military and government. Her leaks were some of the most explosive ever published on Wikileaks, and showed, among many other things, that the State Department fought against a minimum wage increase in Haiti, that American officials were instructed to hide evidence of child abuse by contractors in Afghanistan, and that the Egyptian government received torture training at an FBI facility in Virginia.
Manning was sentenced to 45 years at a male military prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Manning is transgender, and her fight for treatment for gender dysphoria and for relocation to a female facility has been contentious and life threatening; in September, Manning started a hunger strike to protest what she called bullying by the federal government. She was forced to cut her hair to male prisoners' standards and at times lost access to hormone therapy.
Manning attempted to commit suicide twice due to "lack of care for my gender dysphoria," she wrote in September. Late last year, the government finally promised to provide her gender reassignment surgery. A UN torture chief found that Manning's treatment in prison was cruel and inhuman.
"I need help. I am not getting any. I have asked for help time and time again for six years and through five separate confinement locations," she wrote when she announced her hunger strike. "My request has only been ignored, delayed, mocked, given trinkets and lip service by the prison, the military, and this administration."
Manning's attorneys said her life was in the hands of the Obama administration; last week, her attorney wrote her "prospects for surviving another year are grim."
Evan Greer, an organizer with Fight for the Future who has been pushing for Manning's release, told me Tuesday morning before the commutation that many people close to her felt this way: "I don't want to take bets on my friend's life, but I'm very concerned about what will happen if President Obama doesn't act." In 2010, Donald Trump said people who sent documents to Wikileaks should receive the death penalty.
Greer said that without a commutation, it would have "forever tarnished Obama's legacy as someone who even pretended to care about human rights and LGBT rights."
While freeing Manning from prison very well may have saved her life, human rights groups say the way she was treated is at odds with the image the Obama administration presents.
"Today's news will not make good the harm done on Obama's watch," Sarah Harrison, acting director of Courage, a European human rights organization, said in a statement. "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?"
Indeed, the Obama administration has harshly prosecuted whistleblowers such as Manning. Obama prosecuted more government officials under the World War I-era Espionage Act than all previous administrations combined, a black eye on a president who, at one point, won a Nobel Peace prize.
Commuting Manning's sentence doesn't correct that record, but it may save a life.