Obama commutes sentence of Chelsea Manning. What's next for Julian Assange?

In releasing Chelsea Manning nearly three decades early, the outgoing Obama administration will test promises made by Julian Assange.

Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters
People hold signs calling for the release of imprisoned Wikileaks whistleblower Chelsea Manning while marching in a 2015 gay pride parade in San Francisco. President Obama on Tuesday shortened the 35-year prison sentence of Ms. Manning, who will now be released on May 17.

President Obama's decision Tuesday to commute the 35-year prison term imposed on former US military intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning for slipping more than 700,000 documents to Wikileaks in 2010 has drawn fresh attention back to the founder of the anti-privacy website.

Julian Assange, who has been hiding in Ecuador's embassy in London since 2012, has said at least twice that he would submit to American law enforcement authorities if Mr. Obama grants Ms. Manning clemency. In a tweet last week, Wikileaks said Assange would agree to US extradition proceedings "despite clear unconstitutionality" in the case against him if Manning were shown mercy. In a similar message last fall, before the US presidential election, Wikileaks said in a tweet that Assange "will agree to US prison" in exchange for Manning's clemency.

Obama's decision to release Manning in May, almost three decades early, will test Mr. Assange's promises. But the White House said the decision to commute Manning's sentence – alongside 209 other commutations and 64 pardons – had nothing to do with Assange's promises or with the US government's ongoing investigation into Wikileaks' more recent involvement in the publication of hacked emails that dominated political discourse during last year's presidential campaign.

"The president's decision to grant clemency and offer commutation to Chelsea Manning was not influenced in any way by public comments from Assange or the WikiLeaks organization," a White House official told reporters with Reuters and other organizations, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Neil Eggleston, counsel to the president, reported Tuesday in a blog post that Obama has now granted 1,385 commutations – more than any president in US history, including more commutations than the past 12 presidents combined. He has now also granted 212 pardons. There's a key difference between the two types of executive forgiveness, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last month:

A commutation does not remove the civil disabilities created by a conviction like a presidential pardon would. The right to vote, for instance, would not be restored to a person who was released based on the commutation of a sentence, but would be restored to someone who received a full pardon. While a pardon indicates the president's forgiveness of a crime, however, a pardon is not the same as being declared legally innocent, and Obama actually lags most modern presidents in terms of full pardons.

Assange has refused to meet with prosecutors in Sweden, where he stands accused of rape. Although the US Department of Justice has never announced an indictment against him, Assange fears that submitting to Swedish authorities could result in extradition to the United States on possible espionage charges. It is unclear if any US charges have been filed under seal.

One of Assange's lawyers, Barry Pollack, issued a statement Tuesday that did not address whether Assange intended to submit to US authorities, now that Manning's sentence has been commuted.

"For many months, I have asked the DOJ to clarify Mr. Assange's status. I hope it will soon," Mr. Pollack, said in the statement. "The Department of Justice should not pursue any charges against Mr. Assange based on his publication of truthful information and should close its criminal investigation of him immediately."

Melinda Taylor, another lawyer for Assange, suggested both on Twitter and in a brief phone call with the Associated Press that her client would keep his word.

"Everything that he has said he's standing by," she said.

Since the decision to slash Manning's sentence comes mere days before US President-elect Donald Trump takes office, any decision to charge Assange or seek to extradite him will fall to the incoming Republican administration. Such a decision could prove particularly prickly since the current White House says Mr. Trump won the election with help from Russian-backed hackers who disseminated hacked emails about his opponents via Wikileaks – a finding Trump repeatedly denied before conceding last week in his first press conference since the election that "As far as hacking, I think it was Russia."

Obama's decision was panned by Republicans but praised by civil rights groups.

"Chelsea Manning exposed serious abuses, and as a result her own human rights have been violated by the U.S. government for years," Margaret Huang, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement. "President Obama was right to commute her sentence, but it is long overdue. It is unconscionable that she languished in prison for years while those allegedly implicated by the information she revealed still haven’t been brought to justice."

House Speaker Paul Ryan (R) of Wisconsin said Manning's commutation is "just outrageous" and sets a "dangerous precedent."

"Chelsea Manning's treachery put American lives at risk and exposed some of our nation's most sensitive secrets," he said on Twitter.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R) of Arkansas said the leak endangered Americans and their allies, including military service members and civilians alike.

"We ought not treat a traitor like a martyr," he said.

This report includes material from Reuters and the Associated Press.

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