US soldier Bradley Manning has been sentenced to 35 years in prison for giving hundreds of thousands of classified military and diplomatic documents to anti-secrecy group Wikileaks.
The 25-year-old, who leaked the largest amount of classified information in American history, received the jail term after being convicted last month of 20 offences, including six Espionage Act violations, five counts of theft and computer fraud.
Military judge Colonel Denise Lind did not offer any explanation as she handed the 35-year sentence yesterday afternoon to Manning, who stood to attention and appeared not to react.
She could have imposed the maximum 90-year sentence on the soldier, who has been dubbed both a courageous whistleblower and a traitor for opening up a debate on US national security and freedom of expression.
Judge Lind said Manning will be dishonourably discharged from the US military and forfeit some pay. His rank will be reduced to private from private first-class.
Guards hurried him out of the courtroom as supporters cried, “We’ll keep fighting for you, Bradley” and: “You’re our hero.”
Prosecutors had pushed for at least a 60-year term to try to dissuade other soldiers from following in Manning’s footsteps.
The defence suggested a prison term of no more than 25 years so that Manning could rebuild his life.
Wikileaks officials said the sentence was a “strategic victory” as it meant he would be eligible for parole in less than nine years.
The organisation said on social network Twitter: “Significant strategic victory in Bradley Manning case. Bradley Manning now eligible for release in less than 9 years, 4.4 in one calculation.”
He will be eligible for parole after serving one-third of his sentence, which will be reduced by the time he has already served in prison, plus 112 days.
Manning’s uncle, Kevin Fox, insisted his nephew was a hero who should not have been locked up in the first place.
He said: “It was less time than I thought – that’s got to be a good thing. I hope it will be reduced. But to be honest, he shouldn’t have been given any time at all. In my eyes he is a hero.”
Manning leaked more than 700,000 Iraq and Afghanistan battlefield reports and State Department diplomatic cables in 2010 while working as an intelligence analyst in Iraq.
The classified material Manning released to Julian Assange included a 2007 gunsight video of a US Apache helicopter firing at suspected insurgents in Baghdad, leading to a dozen fatalities, including two Reuters news staff.
Manning apologised for the leak, but said it was designed to expose the US military’s “bloodlust” and provoke a debate on the country’s military and diplomatic actions.
“I believed I was going to help people, not hurt people,” he said last week.
His defence team said Manning was under severe mental pressure as a young man struggling with gender identity issues at a time when openly gay people were not allowed to serve in the military. Among the evidence was a photo of Manning in a blonde wig and lipstick.
Prosecutors said the extensive leaks endangered the lives of US intelligence sources and prompted several ambassadors to be recalled, reassigned or expelled. They requested a far longer prison term than other soldiers have received in recent decades for sharing government secrets.
Amnesty International and the Bradley Manning Support Network have announced an online petition asking President Barack Obama to pardon
Other prominent supporters have included Daniel Ellsberg, whose leak of the Pentagon papers in the early 1970s exposed US government lies about the Vietnam War.
The American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement criticising the sentence. Ben Wizner, director of their Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said: “When a soldier who shared information with the press and public is punished far more harshly than others who tortured prisoners and killed
civilians, something is seriously wrong with our justice system.”
Military prisoners can earn up to 120 days a year off their sentence for good behaviour and job performance, but they must serve at least one-third of any prison sentence before they can become eligible for parole.
Manning’s sentence will be cut by three-and-a-half years already spent in pre-trial confinement, including 112 days being illegally punished by harsh conditions at a Marine Corps brig. His lawyers asserted he was locked up alone for at least 23 hours a day, forced to sleep naked for several nights.