Punished for trying to die

After a suicide attempt prompted by continued harsh treatment, Chelsea Manning faces the threat of even more punitive measures, reports Nicole Colson.

A banner for Chelsea Manning at the San Francisco Pride Parada (Torbakhopper)A banner for Chelsea Manning at the San Francisco Pride Parada (Torbakhopper)

THE U.S. government is threatening to more torture for a victim it has nearly tortured to death.

Military officials won't call it that, of course, but that's the grim reality behind the announcement that Manning--the whistleblower who was convicted after releasing files to Wikileaks, including the "Collateral Murder" video documenting U.S. war crimes in Iraq--had attempted suicide last month, and may face indefinite solitary confinement as punishment.

Manning, a former Army intelligence analyst then named Bradley Manning, was convicted in 2013 of violations of the Espionage Act for releasing materials to WikiLeaks and was sentenced to 35 years in the Fort Leavenworth prison in Kansas. After her conviction, Manning came out publicly as transgender. Her legal team has said that she has faced repeated harassment--including long periods of solitary confinement--and denial of proper medical treatment related to her gender.

Chase Strangio, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents Manning, told Democracy Now! that following her suicide attempt, the government presented Manning with a charge sheet while she was still under medical observation. The new charges could result in removal of "privileges," like access to writing materials, or indefinite solitary confinement for the remainder of her sentence.

One of the charges is for having "prohibited property"--items she used in the attempt to take her own life. Another is for "conduct which threatens"--seemingly for putting the prison at risk while attempting to take her own life, in her own cell.

What you can do

Sign a petition calling on the U.S. military to drop the new charges against Chelsea Manning.

Since her arrest, Manning has been frequently subjected to torturous conditions, including being forced to sleep naked while in pre-trial detainment, and being placed in solitary confinement for more than nine months. The United Nations has condemned solitary confinement that lasts for more than 15 days as a form of cruel and inhuman punishment, and even torture.

In a May article describing her experience of solitary confinement, Manning wrote:

For 17 hours a day, I sat directly in front of at least two Marine Corps guards seated behind a one-way mirror. I was not allowed to lay down. I was not allowed to lean my back against the cell wall. I was not allowed to exercise. Sometimes, to keep from going crazy, I would stand up, walk around, or dance, as "dancing" was not considered exercise by the Marine Corps...

[S]olitary confinement in the U.S. is arbitrary, abused and unnecessary in many situations. It is cruel, degrading and inhumane, and is effectively a "no touch" torture. We should end the practice quickly and completely.

Now, says Strangio, Manning is "essentially being punished by the government for trying to die, after so many times being punished for trying to live."

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ACCORDING TO Strangio, Manning's suicide attempt was prompted by continued harsh treatment at the hands of the government--including constant surveillance and the fact that she is a transgender woman housed in a men's disciplinary unit.

Although the government formally recognizes Manning as female and reluctantly allowed her to start hormone treatment, she continues to be forced to conform to male grooming and other standards and has not been allowed proper medical treatment, which has contributed to her depression.

In an interview with Amnesty International published this week, Manning described the Orwellian treatment she has been subjected to by the government:

I am always afraid. I am still afraid of the power of government. A government can arrest you. It can imprison you. It can put out information about you that won't get questioned by the public--everyone will just assume that what they are saying is true. Sometimes, a government can even kill you--with or without the benefit of a trial.

Last year, Manning was threatened with increased punishment, including solitary confinement, for a similar set of infractions that included disrespecting staff and possessing an issue of Vanity Fair with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover and "expired" toothpaste. In response, more than 100,000 people signed a petition demanding the charges be dropped.

Though the charges were upheld--during a closed-door hearing where Manning was not allowed to have counsel present--the public campaign had an impact, and Manning was spared solitary confinement.

As Strangio noted:

I think one of the big concerns right now is that these charges that she is facing could result in long-term solitary confinement for her. They could also result, as they did last summer in comparable charges, in the denial of important privileges like access to phones, access to writing materials, access to law library--the very things that Chelsea Manning uses to stay connected to the world.

And those are the things, the human connection that people need to survive, that she needs to survive. And if she is forced into solitary confinement, which could be indefinite under the terms of her charges, that will be absolutely catastrophic to her mental health...It is a completely inhumane form of punishment that is used far too often in our country.

That Manning is in detention at all--while those who carried out war crimes walk free--is a perversion of justice. It will be up to activists to again demand that she not be subjected to punitive measures--and to keep fighting for her release.

As Fight for the Future campaign director Evan Greer, who organized the petition campaign for Manning last year, told the ACLU, "The U.S. government's treatment of Chelsea is a travesty. Those in charge should know that the whole world is watching, and we won't stand idly by while this administration continues to harass and abuse Chelsea Manning."