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article imageChelsea Manning prepares for freedom, as a woman

By S├ębastien BLANC (AFP)     May 16, 2017 in World

After seven years behind bars, Chelsea Manning will walk out of the security gates of the Fort Leavenworth military prison Wednesday, finally able to complete her transition as a free, openly transgender woman.

When she first arrived at the military barracks, the petite Manning was a male soldier -- then known as Bradley -- who stunned the world by releasing a huge trove of more than 700,000 classified military and diplomatic documents via WikiLeaks.

Her release follows a last-minute commutation of her sentence by president Barack Obama in the waning days of his administration.

Without Obama's parting gift, Manning would have remained behind bars until 2045, after a 35-year sentence.

Her supporters worried she would not be able to survive the long sentence.

Chelsea Manning arrived at Fort Leavenworth military as the male soldier Bradley
Chelsea Manning arrived at Fort Leavenworth military as the male soldier Bradley

Manning, now 29, made two suicide attempts last year alone, along with a hunger strike to denounce the disciplinary measures to which she was subjected.

But the devastating cycle of depression, desperate measures and stays in solitary confinement is now over for Manning, who now turns a new page.

"For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea. I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world," she wrote last week.

"Freedom used to be something that I dreamed of but never allowed myself to fully imagine.

"Now, freedom is something that I will again experience with friends and loved ones after nearly seven years of bars and cement, of periods of solitary confinement, and of my health care and autonomy restricted, including through routinely forced haircuts."

Her defense team is intent on protecting the Oklahoma native. Manning had a difficult childhood. After her parents' divorce, Manning moved with her mother to Wales, where she repressed her sexuality and was mocked for her effeminate ways.

- Quiet release -

The military is therefore keen on keeping her release low-key. No press conference is planned in Arkansas.

"To ensure the privacy and security of Inmate Manning, no further information concerning the release will be provided," US Army spokesman Dave Foster said in a statement.

Manning, of whom few photographs are publicly available, could find refuge at the home of an aunt in the Washington region.

She will rely on a solid network of volunteers ready to help her.

Virtually unknown at the time of her arrest, Manning today is a well-known figure around the world.

Labeled a traitor by President Donald Trump, she has gained the support of major celebrities like R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe and British designer Vivienne Westwood.

For tens of thousands of Americans who petitioned the White House, she is a courageous rights activist.

Supporters say Manning was handed an unfair sentence for embarrassing US diplomatic circles and revealing civilian deaths caused by US bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan.

She wasn't able to flee abroad like Edward Snowden, who in 2013 released documents showing that the NSA was sweeping up US citizens' communications metadata.

- Trans icon -

Manning has also surreptitiously become an icon for transgender activists.

"The first thing Chelsea always says when we talk about her freedom is that she wants to give back to the trans community -- to fight for the many trans people, largely trans women of color, held in custody; to continue to connect with trans young people; to share our victories and our struggles," said Chase Strangio.

"She has an unrelenting sense of compassion and justice despite all that she has faced," added Strangio, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who is himself transgender.

Manning will celebrate her 30th birthday in December. Perhaps by then she will have gained an appearance she finds desirable, after prison authorities refused to allow her to grow her hair beyond the detention center's two-inch (five-centimeter) limit.

Through her lawyers, however, she was able to start hormonal treatment in prison to begin transitioning toward her female identity. This transition is certain to speed up outside a prison environment Manning said denied her "right to exist."

While Manning's sentence was commuted, her conviction remains intact. Manning has appealed.

She is also still employed by the army, and retains its insurance coverage.

"Inmate Manning will remain on excess leave while the court-martial conviction is under appellate review. PVT Manning is statutorily entitled to medical care while on excess leave in an active duty status, pending final appellate review," said Foster, the Army spokesman.

"In an active duty status, although in an unpaid status, Manning is eligible for direct care at medical treatment facilities" along with other work benefits, he added.

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