‘I hope that you will continue supporting my fight for justice. My case impacts important issues that affect many, if not all, Americans.’
Chelsea Manning is a whistleblower who worked for the US military as a data analyst during the US-led coalition war in Afghanistan. In 2013, she was sentenced to 35-years in military prison for leaking classified US government documents to the Wikileaks website, and revealing to the public that the US army, the CIA and Iraqi and Afghan forces committed human rights violations.
She spent a total of nearly 7 years in prison since her initial arrest in Iraq in 2010, before having her sentence commuted by President Barack Obama in 2017. Her treatment in prison was heavily criticised as degrading, cruel and inhumane, and it highlighted the lack of protections in place for whistleblowers.
Chelsea has always claimed that she released information in the public interest. The crimes she exposed have never been investigated.
Amnesty International campaigned for Chelsea Manning from 2013 until her eventual release, including in 2014 as part of our annual Write For Rights campaign leading to nearly 250,000 of our global supporters calling for her release. We also took on other initiatives such as advocacy and campaigning with stakeholders, sending birthday messages, and conducting a podcast interview with her.
“These cards and letters literally flooded the mail room and my cell during my birthday, the holidays and Amnesty’s Write for Rights campaign in December. I read each one! And I greatly appreciated all of your strong words of support, and your warm words of comfort.” Chelsea Manning
Thank you to everyone who signed a petition for Chelsea's freedom or wrote her a message, over the years. You really have made a difference. pic.twitter.com/L7Q16P5gk0
— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) May 17, 2017
Sentenced to 35 years
On 21 August 2013, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in military prison for handing over documents to WikiLeaks during 2009 and 2010 – the biggest information leak in US military history. The sentence was 17 times longer than any other previously administered for providing information to the media, and clearly reflected the intention to make an example of a soldier who dared to reveal human rights issues related to military operations. The sentence was also much longer than military members’s convictions for rape, murder and war crimes.
Chelsea was found guilty of numerous offences, including theft and espionage. During her trial she was banned from presenting her evidence or the motives behind her actions, including her claim that she was acting in the public interest in exposing military abuses and fostering debate on the costs of war. She later elaborated in an Amnesty blog post why she thought speaking out was worth the risk, while elaborating further in her participation in Amnesty’s In Their Own Words podcast.
Blowing the whistle on human rights abuses
While stationed in Iraq between November 2009 and May 2010, US military analyst Chelsea obtained and distributed classified military information to the WikiLeaks website. She was arrested in May 2010 after a former computer hacker reported Chelsea to the FBI.
Chelsea says she acted with the intention of exposing potential human rights abuses by the US army and its allies, in order to open up informed public debate around American operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
‘It was never my intention to hurt anyone. I only wanted to help people. When I chose to disclose classified information, I did so out of a love for my country and a sense of duty to others.’
Information leaked by Chelsea included details of potential human rights abuses, including a secret attack by a US Apache helicopter in Baghdad, in which US soldiers killed 12 people, including civilians. To date, there has been no independent and impartial investigation into this attack – US authorities have focused on charging Chelsea, rather than investigating the content of material she drew attention to.
Chelsea Manning endured disproportionate punishments while imprisoned, including solitary confinement and harsh disciplinary actions. For example, two days before a hearing, prison authorities banned her from using the prison’s legal library, hindering her ability to defend herself against these charges.
Furthermore, her cell was searched, leading to the confiscation of seemingly innocuous items like expired toothpaste, magazines, and books. These actions resulted in disciplinary charges, including 'medicine misuse' for the toothpaste and 'possessing prohibited property' for the literature. Manning also faced charges of 'disrespect' and 'disorderly conduct' for minor incidents which carried the potential penalty of indefinite solitary confinement, a practice criticised as a human rights abuse.
During her time in prison, Chelsea Manning also fought for her right to undergo a gender transition. She took legal action to change her name, access hormone therapy, and be addressed as a female.
After her arrest, Chelsea was held for three years in pre-trial detention. She was kept in solitary confinement for eleven months of her pre-trial detention, in conditions that amount to torture, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.
Chelsea was confined in a windowless six-metre cell for 23 hours a day, without personal possessions, bed sheets, and at times even her glasses. While she was seen as a suicide risk, Chelsea was only allowed to wear her boxer shorts in her cell, and was sometimes forced to go without even her underwear.
Chelsea has described how she was verbally harassed just before the suicide watch began and how she believed that it was a punishment imposed upon her as a retribution for a protest at the conditions of her detention that had been held outside the detention centre the previous day.
In 2016, she was sentenced to 14 days in solitary confinement following a suicide attempt, which highlighted the cruel treatment she received even when she required medical help.
At her July 2013 trial, Chelsea was not allowed to present evidence that she was acting in the public interest – her defense all along; instead she could only explain her motives when she was being sentenced, and the judgment had already been made.
Overcharged as a warning to others
‘I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society’.
Chelsea pleaded guilty to charges involving the leaking of the classified material. However, the military brought several much more serious charges against her, including violating America’s Espionage Act and ‘aiding the enemy’. She was not convicted of 'aiding the enemy' but was found guilty of violating the Espionage Act on numerous counts.
Prosecuting beyond the information leak to WikiLeaks constitutes ‘overcharging’: rather than punishing Chelsea just for the leaking offences she had already admitted to, the prosecution brought wider ideological charges against her. In doing so, the prosecution said they intended to send a harsh warning to other potential whistleblowers – an action that could prevent information about human rights abuses and wrongdoing being revealed by military personnel in future.
— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) May 17, 2017
Sentence commuted and Manning freed
In the final days of his presidency, Barack Obama commuted the 35-year sentence of Chelsea Manning, after she served seven years in detention. Since her release, Chelsea Manning has continued to advocate for government transparency, human rights and transgender rights. In 2022, Manning released her memoir, README.txt, in which she talks about her early life, gender transition, imprisonment and life after freedom.
While some new legislation for whistleblower protection has been introduced in the United States since Manning’s imprisonment and subsequent release, no substantive new protections have been afforded to whistleblowers as the result of her case. Nevertheless, her case has certainly influenced public and policy debates on these issues.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International launched the Brave campaign in 2017, encouraging activists and whistleblowers around the world who often put themselves in grave danger to challenge human rights violations. To learn about other success stories of other human rights defenders who we have campaigned for, visit Amnesty International’s following timeline of Write For Rights since 2010.