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Analysis: Bradley Manning’s sentence may say more about the government than about the young Army private convicted for sharing classified documents with WikiLeaks.
The 35-year sentence handed down to US Army Private First Class Bradley Manning on Wednesday is a split-the-difference decision that is likely to inflame passions on both sides of the increasingly rancorous public debate surrounding the whole WikiLeaks affair.
The judge, Army Col. Denise Lind, did not comply either with the harsh demands of the prosecution, which recommended 60 years, nor with the defense’s request for a more lenient 25 years.
In the best-case scenario, Manning could be out in just eight years: he is required to serve one-third of his sentence, or just under 12 years, minus the more than three years he has already spent in confinement, before he is eligible for parole. If denied parole at his first hearing, he can try again yearly until the end of his sentence, according to his lawyers.
His time already served includes 112 days of detention, when Manning was held under conditions described by the UN special rapporteur on torture as cruel and inhumane and which even the Army acknowledged was “excessively harsh.”
Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, broke down at the sentence, and had to be consoled by his client.
"We went back into the room [after the judge read the sentence]," Coombs told reporters at a press conference Wednesday afternoon. "Myself and others were in tears … [Manning] looks to me, and he says, 'It's OK. It's alright. I know you did your best. I'm going to be OK. I'm going to get through this.'”
Coombs said that, in his experience, the punishment did not fit the crime: leaking more than 700,000 pages of classified material.
“When I heard the sentence, 35 years, I think to myself — I've represented hundreds of clients. And my clients have run the gamut, from people who have committed murder to molested children, and those types of clients receive less time that Pfc. Manning,” said Coombs.
But the length of the sentence was never really the point: in the deeply polarized post-WikiLeaks world, no conceivable sentence would have satisfied public opinion.
For those who supported the prosecution’s viewpoint, nothing short of life behind bars would have been enough.
In his closing arguments for the prosecution, Maj. Asden Fein argued that “there may not be a soldier in the history of the United States who displayed such an extreme disregard for the judgment of the officers appointed above him and the orders of the President of the United States.”
Manning’s revelations “created a grave risk of harm to national security,” and “endangered the well-being of innocent civilians and soldiers,” said Fein.
The pundits jumped in almost as soon as the sentence was proclaimed.
“Bradley Manning got off too easy,” blasted Ryan Evans of The National Interest Online. He further opined that Manning should have been convicted of “aiding the enemy” — the most serious charge levied against him, and of which he was acquitted — and likened WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to 19th century Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
But as much as Manning is branded a traitor and a villain by some, he is lionized by others.
More from GlobalPost: Snowden, Manning, and the rise of the American anti-hero
Reporters covering the event tweeted that cries of “Bradley Manning, you’re our hero!” went up from the crowd outside the gates of Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, where the trial took place. They were joined by organized protesters holding “Free Bradley Manning” signs.
“The news of Bradley Manning’s sentencing is devastating,” she tweeted. "If our own can’t speak up about injustice, who will? How will we ever move forward?"
The defense had pleaded for clemency based on Manning’s fragile emotional state, and on a lack of support and oversight by his Army superiors.
But in his closing arguments, Fein made clear that Manning alone was responsible.
“This is a case about Pfc. Manning, Your Honor,” he said. “The Army is not on trial.”
In this, Fein may be deceiving himself. Not only is the Army squarely in