“I was stripped of all clothing with the exception of my underwear. My prescription eyeglasses were taken away from me and I was forced to sit in essential blindness.”
Those words were part of an 11 page letter written by Chelsea Manning and passed to the Guardian in March 2011 in which she outlined the harsh treatment to which she was being subjected in prolonged solitary confinement in the military brig at Quantico base in Virginia. She was then awaiting trial as the suspected source of the biggest leak of state secrets in US history, and going under the male name given to her at birth before her transition to living as a woman. The details of her detention were later denounced by the UN as a form of torture.
Physically tiny in frame, she has proven to be over the past seven years oversized in the intensity of her resistance to anything she sees as unjust in the world, or disrespectful in terms of her own treatment at the hands of her military captors. She has expressed those passionate emotions in her regular Guardian columns and in a stream of legal documents aiming to secure her rights while incarcerated. More recently, in acts of distressing self-harming, she let it be known that she had attempted suicide.
On Tuesday, that dogged persistence on the part of Manning and her team of lawyers – her trial lawyer David Coombs, followed by her appeal lawyer Nancy Hollander and the attorney handling her transgender lawsuit, Chase Strangio – was finally repaid with a happier outcome. In a move that is likely to go down in history as President Obama’s most contentious decision to commute a sentence, made in the dying days of his term in office, he has ordered that she should walk free from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 120 days’ time, on 17 May.
In her job researching military patterns in the area surrounding her base in Iraq in late 2009 and early 2010 she had grown increasingly disturbed by what she had discovered in the databases about the unequal face of modern warfare and the at times callous and brutal way in which the US exerted its vast military superiority against civilian populations.
She was particularly unsettled by a video upon which she stumbled, showing an US Apache helicopter attack on a group of people on the ground who had been assumed to be insurgents but were in fact civilians including two Reuters journalists. The footage was later published with immense impact globally as the “Collateral Murder” video.
Other hugely impactful material among her leaks, many of which were published initially by the Guardian as part of an international consortium of news outlets, included war logs from Afghanistan and Iraq and the US embassy cables that deeply embarrassed Hillary Clinton’s state department and helped propel popular uprisings in Tunisia and beyond.