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Podcast: Chelsea Manning and Michelle Hendley

Chelsea Manning in February 2015, after she began hormone therapy
Chelsea Manning in February 2015, after she began hormone therapy © Private

'I feel like I’ve been stored away all this time without a voice'
Chelsea Manning

She’s arguably the world’s most famous whistleblower. And despite the fact that she’s detained in a high-security military prison, Chelsea Elizabeth Manning is still finding ways to speak out.

Listen to Chelsea’s story, in her own words

This is Chelsea’s story, voiced by Michelle Hendley

In early 2016, Chelsea wrote to us and told us about her life in prison now, as well as the back story – how she came to be who she is and do what she did.

You can listen in full to Chelsea’s story above, voiced in our podcast by the actress Michelle Hendley, who lent Chelsea her voice for this episode of In Their Own Words.

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'I was excited to do the podcast because it is a creative way for me to be able to express myself in my own words and in my own way, even though I am prevented by the rules of the prison to be photographed, video recorded, or audio recorded. Amnesty's podcast helps me from being erased from the public eye (or ear).'
Chelsea Manning

Waiting on her freedom

In 2013, Chelsea Manning was sentenced to 35 years in military prison for leaking US military information to the WikiLeaks website in 2009 and 2010. She is currently detained in Fort Leavenworth military prison in Kansas.

On 17 January 2017, President Obama commuted a large part of Chelsea's sentence, ruling that she will be freed on 17 May 2017, instead of in 2045. This long overdue ruling is excellent news, and we look forward to seeing Chelsea walk free in May.

Human rights activist

Despite the very real restrictions on her freedom in prison, Chelsea has become a renowned free speech activist, making the most of opportunities to communicate from prison where possible to continue speaking out. Last year she tabled a challenge to US surveillance laws from her cell.

And she continues to speak out for transgender rights. She’s redefined how transgender people like her are treated in the US military; one year ago she won the right to become the first military prisoner to transition in prison.

The backstory: punished for whistleblowing on abuses

In 2009, 22-year-old Chelsea was serving as a military analyst in the US army in the US-led coalition war in Iraq. She was working with top-secret information. But some of the images and transcripts she was handling appeared to reveal human rights abuses – abuses committed by US forces and their allies. Abuses that the public would never know about.

In the interests of opening up public debate on the war, and in an attempt to show the world what she’d seen – what she later called ‘the true cost of war’ – Chelsea leaked around 750,000 confidential files to the website WikiLeaks. It was the biggest military information leak the US had ever seen. And it cost Chelsea her freedom.

US military authorities claimed that Chelsea had endangered public security by blowing the whistle: she was detained in solitary confinement and in 2013 appeared before a military tribunal, where she was convicted of numerous charges of theft and espionage (including six under the 1917 Espionage Act, often contested by free speech campaigners) – but cleared of the count of ‘aiding the enemy’ put to her (a charge that could have seen her sentenced to death).

In July 2013, a court dealt her one of the harshest sentences in recent US history for passing information to the media: 35 years in prison.

'I will serve my time knowing that sometimes you have to pay a heavy price to live in a free society'
Chelsea in a letter to President Barack Obama in 2013

Why we've been campaigning for Chelsea's freedom

We've been calling for Chelsea's freedom for several years.

Chelsea was served 35 years in military prison because she shared information that she thought could shed a light on potential abuses and prompt meaningful public debate on the conflict. Prevented from using this in her defence at her tribunal and overcharged as a warning to others, Chelsea has been punished over the odds for actions.

Meanwhile, the US government has never investigated the abuses she exposed – while Chelsea has paid a high price for putting that information in the public realm. We have said that she was overcharged as a warning to others - and suffered for it, being subjected to solitary confinement and denied gender equality she sought as a transgender women in military prison.