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Instead of Certain Death, Chelsea Manning Now Has a Chance at Life

Chelsea Manning 2010
Chelsea Manning 2010
Chase Strangio,
Deputy Director for Transgender Justice, ACLU LGBTQ & HIV Project
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January 18, 2017

Yesterday, around 4:15 p.m., we learned that President Obama commuted Chelsea Manning’s 35-year sentence to 7 years with a release date of May 17, 2017. In four months, with our continued vigilance to ensure her safety and lawful release, she will be free.

No doubt saving her life, the president cut 28 years off her egregiously long sentence. Having already served nearly seven years in custody, Chelsea has spent more time in prison than any other whistleblower in U.S. history. And history will no doubt look favorably upon President Obama’s decision to cut short Chelsea’s unprecedented sentence.

As the ACLU’s Ben Wizner said on August 21, 2013, the day of Chelsea’s sentencing, “When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.” Years before that, in 2010, then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said of Chelsea’s disclosures, “Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.” And then just last week, unnamed Army intelligence officers told NBC News that in retrospect, Chelsea’s sentence “seems excessive.”

Indeed, the excessive sentence nearly cost Chelsea her life. Subjected to long-stretches of solitary confinement and particularly brutal conditions at Quantico before her trial, denied health care for her gender dysphoria, and then punished for the desperation that led her to attempt suicide, Chelsea’s life has been repeatedly imperiled while in custody.

This past year, Chelsea twice attempted to end her life in large part due to the escalating distress caused by the government’s refusal to adequately treat her gender dysphoria. Despite the recommendations of the military’s own medical providers, Chelsea has had to fight for her treatment in court and was still facing an uphill and protracted legal battle to obtain the right to follow the hair and grooming standards for female military prisoners. And while assurances were made that the military would move forward with medically recommended surgery to treat her gender dysphoria, Chelsea has been waiting since September to meet with the treatment team. Those plans may have been further stalled given President-elect Trump’s criticism of the military’s change in policy to permit transgender individuals to serve openly as being too “politically correct.”

These delays were breaking her, and they likely would have killed her.

In 2015, after the military informed Chelsea that they would continue to enforce the male hair length standards against her, she wrote in a Medium post, “After feeling devastated, humiliated, hurt, and rejected  —  and after wanting to give up on the world  —  I found my ‘second wind’ of sorts. I can make it just a little longer. I just hope it’s not too much longer.”

Finally, it won’t be too much longer. Instead of 28 years, it will be four months. Instead of certain death, it will be a chance at life.

Chelsea wrote in her plea to President Obama for clemency, “I am merely asking for a first chance to live my life outside the USDB as the person I was born to be.”

What a gift to us all that she may get that chance.

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