Chelsea Manning's Ordeal - An Exercise In Political Retribution

18/01/2017 14:17 GMT | Updated 19/01/2018 10:12 GMT

So Chelsea Manning's long ordeal is set to end. Her scheduled release on 17 May - International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia - will bring to end a distinctly unsavoury chapter in recent US history.

Punished for trying to alert the world to possible US war crimes in Iraq, the US military authorities have treated Chelsea with rank injustice and barely-disguised contempt for seven years.

From the 11 months of crushing pre-trial solitary confinement in a military jail in Virginia (where various humiliations included being stripped and made to stand naked for parade every night), to an unfair trial where she wasn't allowed to present evidence that her actions were in the public interest, to a post-conviction routine which denied her treatment to assist in gender transition - Chelsea's nightmarish seven years have taken her to brink of despair and suicide.

This is hardly now "over" in any straightforward sense, but at least the terrible prospect of decades behind bars has been replaced by a happier one.

Amnesty International has watched in horror and disbelief as the full punitive might of the US military system was used to crush Chelsea. Despite the hardship and the depression, I'm extremely relieved she's made it this far and that there's now light at the end of the tunnel. I'm also glad that nearly 10,000 solidarity messages that Amnesty arranged for well-wishers to send to Chelsea may have played a small part in lifting her spirits during some of her darker moments. (For more on how Chelsea dealt with some of the hardship she's endured, listen to this fascinating podcast from last year).

There was always a starkly political quality to Chelsea Manning's case. Her unprecedented 35-year jail sentence was obviously designed to deter anyone from following her example. A crushing "pour encourager les autres" jail term that would have seen her left to languish in a maximum-security military prison until 2045. It was an exercise in political retribution, not justice.

It's surely no coincidence that Chelsea received her huge sentence a few months after the former US National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the bewildering extent of the USA's secret global surveillance system. Amid political denunciations of whistleblowers as "traitors", the US authorities were clearly intent on silencing other would-be Mannings and Snowdens.

Let's take a moment to reflect on the warped priorities that Chelsea Manning's hounding represents. She had helped put into the public domain important information about apparent abuses by US military personnel in Iraq. In particular, a video showing US helicopter gunships firing repeatedly on people on the ground in Baghdad appeared to be damning evidence of reckless behaviour on the part of trigger-happy US forces, including against members of the press.

The helicopter video wasn't the first visual evidence of US misbehaviour in Iraq, and it's instructive to compare the fall-out from this to the other landmark instance - Abu Ghraib. The release of a cache of photos showing US military contractors indulging in sadistic and thoroughly depraved acts of torture against detainees should have had major repercussions within the US military and political establishment. Yet it was essentially brushed aside, with not one high-ranking military or political official facing a proper investigation. Ditto Guantánamo Bay and numerous misdeeds committed for years in secret CIA "black site" detention facilities around the world.

After the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee report into years of CIA torture, President Obama appeared to rule out further investigations and prosecutions, and the US Department of Justice made clear it had no intention of pursuing prosecutions despite what appeared to be a wealth of evidence. Torturers and their military and political commanders were to go scot-free. Manning would stay in prison for half her life.

So now, belated though it is, President Obama's commutation sets right some of the wrongs done to Chelsea. He should now use his vanishing time as 44th US president to pardon Edward Snowden, ending this other brave whistleblower's enforced Russian exile. He should also issue a clemency order for the 72-year-old Native American man Leonard Peltier, who has been in jail (including in solitary confinement) for over 40 years, despite serious concerns over the fairness of his trial.

Contrary to its mythologising slogan, the USA is all too often not the land of the free. But Chelsea Manning's forthcoming freedom is something to celebrate. Her steadfastness and bravery show the best of America. I look forward to 17 May and wish Chelsea well in the meantime. She has a lot to be proud of.