Today, President Barack Obama rightly commuted the sentence of Chelsea Manning, who shared classified U.S. government documents with online publisher WikiLeaks in 2010. US authorities sentenced her to 35 years in prison, the longest US sentence ever imposed for such a leak; Manning will now be released on May 17, 2017.
Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst then known as Bradley, is currently incarcerated at the US Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth. A transgender woman, she has repeatedly attempted suicide during her term at the men’s facility, has faced obstacles in obtaining appropriate gender-affirming medical treatment and spent months in solitary confinement since her arrest.
Some of the many documents leaked by Manning exposed to public consideration important facts about US military engagements, revealing a much higher death count in Afghanistan and Iraq than officially acknowledged, abusive treatment of prisoners by Iraqi officers working with the US military, and a video of a US military helicopter gunning down journalists in Baghdad.
Human Rights Watch has long objected both Manning’s prosecution under laws that allow no public interest defense, and to her grossly disproportionate sentence. Under the Espionage Act, the prosecution is not required to prove that a leak actually harmed national security, nor are those accused allowed to argue in their defense that their actions were in the public interest. The result violates both the right to free expression and the public’s right to access to information; it also places those who would publicly expose wrongdoing on national security issues in fear that they will have no defense if criminally charged.
We wrote to Obama on Friday to support the commutation of the sentence, which the president had reportedly been considering.
We hope Obama will take the logical next step of pardoning whistleblower Edward Snowden – a move for which Human Rights Watch has campaigned, along with the American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International. Snowden’s 2013 disclosure to journalists of documents concerning large-scale US surveillance around the globe sparked worldwide debates about the right to privacy, leading to congressional and parliamentary inquiries and legislative reform.
Like Manning, Snowden faces prosecution under the Espionage Act and would not have the opportunity to argue in court that his actions benefited civil liberties, nor would the government have to demonstrate any harms. More than one million people have signed a petition calling for Snowden’s pardon, and we call upon Obama to take action accordingly.