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Today a US court martial sentenced Pfc. Bradley Manning to 35 years’ imprisonment(less time served and time credited for his abusive pretrial detention) for giving  confidential US documents to Wikileaks, and thereby to the global public. That’s a good deal less than the prosecution’s ask – initially, 136 years, revised down to 60 years after the military judge consolidated charges– but this is still bad news for Manning, for journalists and their sources, and for anyone who thinks that democracy requires an accountable government. 

Let’s not forget that Manning confessed to 10 charges that carried cumulative penalties of 20 years. That apparently wasn’t enough deterrence or retribution for the government, so it refused a plea bargain and pressed forward. While Manning was acquitted of “aiding the enemy,” he was convicted of other charges under the Espionage Act, which allow no defense for those who try to alert the public of official wrongdoing.  Manning’s lawyer argued at the sentencing hearing that Manning was trying to reveal wrongdoing, such as attacks on civilians and abuse of prisoners; his argument evidently had little effect on the judge. 

Thirty-five years is an appalling sentence for a young man who thought he was bringing war crimes and unethical policies to light. The government’s zeal in prosecuting Manning stands in stark contrast to its reluctance to hold US officials to account for torture and soldiers for attacks on civilians. Even compared to cases of mass killing, it pales – Staff Sgt. Frank Wuterich, the sole individual to be sentenced for the deaths of 24 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Haditha in 2005, received a demotion in rank but no prison time.

Manning’s aggressive prosecution and lengthy sentence are also severely disproportionate to how US allies punish national security leaks. This prosecution, and its crushing result, was aimed not at those who genuinely seek to harm the national security by passing secrets to enemies, but at those whose intent is to provide information to the world.

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