US President Barack Obama on Tuesday commuted the sentence of transgender soldier Chelsea Manning, who is serving 35 years behind bars for handing classified US documents to WikiLeaks.
Obama pardoned 64 people and commuted the sentences of 209 others, including Manning, in one of his final acts as president.
Manning was convicted in August 2013 of espionage and other offenses after admitting to leaking 700,000 sensitive military and diplomatic classified documents to WikiLeaks.
The 29-year-old will now be released in May.
The former private was sentenced by military court martial as Bradley Manning and has since been held in an all-male prison, at times in solitary confinement, and has attempted to commit suicide twice.
Activists had argued her sentence is excessive and point to the psychological frailty of the transgender soldier.
“This move could quite literally save Chelsea’s life,” said Chase Strangio of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Still, Obama’s move is something of a surprise, coming in the midst of a scandal over the hacking and release of Democratic party emails that roiled the 2016 election.
– ‘Victory’ –
In recent weeks the White House had refused to be drawn on a possible commutation or pardon, but drew a stark difference between Manning, who went through the courts and admitted wrongdoing, and the likes of Edward Snowden.
Snowden — who fled to Hong Kong and then Russia after making a shattering revelation in 2013 of a global communications and internet surveillance system spanning the globe — was not on Obama’s list.
WikiLeaks — which has been linked to last year’s election hacks — claimed “victory” and thanked those who campaigned on Manning’s behalf.
“Your courage & determination made the impossible possible,” the group tweeted on its founder Julian Assange’s behalf.
But there was no word on whether Assange — who is holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London — would make good on a promise to be extradited to the United States if Manning was freed.
“If Obama grants Manning clemency Assange will agree to US extradition despite clear unconstitutionality of DoJ case,” the group tweeted last week.
White House officials dismissed any link between WikiLeak’s pledge and Obama’s decision on Manning.
– Backlash –
Republican Senator Tom Cotton expressed fury at Obama’s decision, saying “we ought not treat a traitor like a martyr.”
“I don’t understand why the president would feel special compassion for someone who endangered the lives of our troops, diplomats, intelligence officers, and allies.”
Among the others who received commutations was Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar Lopez-Rivera, who has been in prison for more than three decades on terrorism charges.
Obama also pardoned James Cartwright, a former four-star general who lied to the FBI about his discussions with journalists about Iran’s nuclear program.
Another round of commutations is expected on Thursday, officials said.
Many will be looking to see whether that list includes Bowe Bergdahl, a US Army sergeant held captive for five years by the Taliban before his release in a prisoner swap, who is due to be court-martialed for desertion.
Other names omitted Tuesday were General David Petraeus — who pleaded guilty to improperly sharing classified information — and Obama’s ally Hillary Clinton.
There had been wild speculation that Obama may chose to preemptively pardon her to forestall any Republican-led prosecution over her handling of email as secretary of state.
Presidents can theoretically pardon people before they are even sentenced.