Chelsea Manning spent most of the last decade in prison. The U.N. says her latest stint is tantamount to torture


Former U.S. Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning addresses reporters before entering the Albert Bryan U.S. federal courthouse in Alexandria, Va., on May 16, 2019. PHOTO/Win McNamee/Getty Images

On New Year’s Eve, as personal reflections on the last decade flooded in, Chelsea Manning’s account tweeted that she had spent 77.76 percent of her time since 2009 in jail. That same day, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Nils Melzer publicly released a letter from late last year accusing the United States of submitting Manning to treatment that is tantamount to torture.

It does not take a U.N. expert to recognize the current conditions of Manning’s incarceration as a form of torture. It is the very definition of torture to submit a person to physical and mental suffering in an effort to force an action from them. Since May, Manning has been held in a Virginia jail for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury investigating WikiLeaks. Manning has not been charged with or convicted of a crime. And her imprisonment on the grounds of “civil contempt” is explicitly coercive: If she agrees to testify, she can walk free. If she continues to remain silent, she can be held for the 18-month duration of the grand jury or, as the U.N. official noted, “indefinitely with the subsequent establishment of successive grand juries.”

Each day she is caged, Manning is also fined $1,000. If she is released at the end of the current grand jury, she will owe the state nearly $500,000 — an unprecedented punishment for grand jury resistance. And Manning has made clear, she would “rather starve to death” than comply with the repressive grand jury system, a judicial black box historically deployed against social justice movements.

“Such deprivation of liberty does not constitute a circumscribed sanction for a specific offense, but an open-ended progressively severe measure of coercion,” Melzer, the U.N. special rapporteur, wrote of Manning’s treatment. Melzer’s November letter, which was made public this week, stated that Manning’s coercive imprisonment fulfills “all the constitutive elements of torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” and “should be discontinued or abolished without delay.” The letter asks that the U.S. government provide factual and legal grounds for Manning’s ongoing imprisonment and fines, “especially after her categorical and persistent refusal to give testimony demonstrates the lack of their coercive effect.”

Manning’s supporters and legal team have long stressed that no such legal grounds exist. Manning has proven again and again that her grand jury resistance is unshakeable; the coercive grounds for imprisonment are thus undermined and her jailing is revealed to be purely punitive. Federal Judge Anthony Trenga, who ordered Manning’s torturous incarceration, should be compelled to release her as a point of law, regardless of U.N. censure. This is not to say, however, that coercive incarceration is defensible in cases where it works to compel testimony — it is not. Manning’s resistance has highlighted the brutality of the practice tout court.

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