In Depth

Who is Chelsea Manning - and what did she do?

US army whistle-blower sentenced to third stint in prison after refusing to testify at WikiLeaks hearing

US army whistleblower Chelsea Manning is back behind bars just seven days after being released from jail, for refusing to testify before a secret federal grand jury.

Manning, 31, was remanded in custody this week for contempt of court after declining to answer questions in connection with the US government's long-running investigation into WikiLeaks and the site's founder, Julian Assange. She had just completing a two-month sentence for an earlier refusal to testify.

At a hearing in a federal district court in Alexandria, Virginia, on Thursday, Judge Anthony Trenga ordered the former army intelligence analyst to return to prison and said she would be fined $500 (£390 ) a day for the first 30 days in detention, followed by $1,000 (£780 ) a day, until she testifies. 

Manning had earlier told the judge that she would “rather starve to death” than do so, The Washington Post reports.

But who is Chelsea Manning and why is she so important to the WikiLeaks investigation?

What did Chelsea Manning do?

The former US army intelligence analyst made several tours of Iraq during her country’s military operations there, when she was known as Bradley Manning.

However in early 2010, after becoming - in her own words - “beyond frustrated with people and society at large”, she made contact with WikiLeaks and Assange in order to leak military and diplomatic documents relating to US military activity.

According to Biography.com, Manning passed on classified information that she described as “profoundly troubling”. In a column for The New York Times in 2014, she wrote that her decision stemmed from love of her country and a "sense of duty to others".

Many of the leaked documents contradicted official reports, especially in relation to civilian casualties, and their release has been credited with directly contributing to the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011.

The leaks also revealed evidence that “US diplomats routinely act as spies, that the US had secretly launched a war in Yemen (which continues to this day), and that US forces had killed two Reuters journalists along with Iraqi civilians”, says Wired.

In May 2010, Manning was reported to the US government by a hacker confidant. She was arrested the same month.

What happened next?

Following a lengthy detention and trial, Manning was convicted by court martial in July 2013 of violating the Espionage Act by disclosing to WikiLeaks nearly 750,000 classified or otherwise sensitive military and diplomatic documents.

She was sentenced to 35 years at Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas for six violations, including theft and computer fraud. However, she was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy, which could have left her facing the death penalty.

In 2014, Manning, who was born male, sued the US Department of Defense, claiming it was refusing to give her medical treatment for gender dysphoria.

She tried to commit suicide on at least two occasions and went on hunger strike before being granted hormone therapy. She would later undergo gender affirming surgery, in October 2018.

That surgery following her release in May 2017, after then-president Barack Obama commuted her remaining sentence. However, Obama stressed that he was not issuing a pardon but clemency, because Manning had gone to trial, taken responsibility for her crime and received a "very disproportionate" sentence.

However, his successor, Donald Trump, has labelled Manning a "disgraceful traitor" who "should never have been released from prison".

Why is she back in the news?

Earlier this year, a grand jury investigating WikiLeaks and Assange subpoenaed Manning to testify at a hearing behind closed doors.

US prosecutors have been conducting an inquiry into the website and its founder for a number of years, and are currently seeking Assange's extradition from the UK following his arrest after leaving the Ecuadorian embassy in London last month.

However, Manning has refused to cooperate with the investigators, claiming that she has a “philosophical objection to the use of grand juries”, The Sun reports.

“I'm not going to comply with this grand jury,” she told journalists outside the court this week. “I would rather starve to death than to change my opinions in this regard.”

She refuses to answer further questions about WikiLeaks “because, she says, she has already given her testimony during the 2013 trial”, the BBC adds.

Manning claimed the jury wanted her back in jail as punishment for her original crimes related to espionage. “The goal here is really to relitigate the court martial," she said. “They didn't like the outcome - I got out.”

Her lawyer, Moira Meltzer-Cohen, added: “In 2010, Chelsea made a principled decision to let the world see the true nature of modern asymmetric warfare. It is telling that the United States has always been more concerned with the disclosure of those documents than with the damning substance of the disclosures.”

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