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Former US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning speaks to reporters outside the US federal courthouse shortly before appearing before a federal judge and being taken into custody as he held her in contempt of court for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury in Alexandria, Virginia, on March 8, 2019. Image Credit: Reuters

Washington: A federal judge on Thursday ordered the release of Chelsea Manning, the former Army intelligence analyst who in 2010 leaked archives of military and diplomatic documents to WikiLeaks, and who was jailed last year for refusing to testify before a grand jury that is investigating the organisation and its founder, Julian Assange.

The release came one day after Manning tried to kill herself and was hospitalised, according to her lawyers.

In a brief opinion, a US District Court judge overseeing the matter, Anthony J. Trenga, said that he also dismissed on Thursday the grand jury that Manning was refusing to testify before after finding that its business had concluded.

“The court finds that Ms Manning’s appearance before the grand jury is no longer needed, in light of which her detention no longer serves any coercive purpose,” Trenga wrote.

Fines for defiance of subpoena

However, he said, Manning would still have to pay $256,000 in fines for her defiance of the subpoena. The judge wrote that “enforcement of the accrued, conditional fines would not be punitive but rather necessary to the coercive purpose of the court’s civil contempt order.”

Manning was originally jailed a year ago for contempt of court after initially refusing to testify about WikiLeaks and Assange, but was briefly released when the first grand jury expired. Prosecutors then obtained a new subpoena, and she was locked up again for defying it in May. The moves raise the possibility that prosecutors could start over a third time.

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But supporters of Manning had believed that the grand jury was not set to terminate on March 12, raising the prospect that prosecutors and the judge decided to shut it down early to bring the matter to a close.

“It is my devout hope that she is released to us shortly, and that she is finally given a meaningful opportunity to rest and heal that she so richly deserves,” said her lawyer, Moira Meltzer-Cohen.

Joshua Stueve, a spokesman for the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, declined to comment.

Wikileaks and global fame

The archives that Manning provided to WikiLeaks in 2010, when she was an Army intelligence analyst posted in Iraq, helped vault the anti-secrecy organisation and Assange to global fame. The events took place years before their image and actions evolved with the publication of Democratic emails stolen by Russian hackers during the 2016 election.

Manning admitted sending the files to WikiLeaks in a court-martial trial. She also confessed to interacting online with someone who was probably Assange, but she said she had acted on principle and was not working for WikiLeaks.

Testimony showed that she had been deteriorating, mentally and emotionally, during the period when she downloaded the documents and sent them to WikiLeaks. Then known as Pfc. Bradley Manning, she was struggling with gender dysphoria under conditions of extraordinary stress and isolation while deployed to the Iraq war zone.

She was sentenced to 35 years in prison - the longest sentence by far in an American leak case. After her conviction, she changed her name to Chelsea and announced that she wanted to undergo gender transition, but was housed in a male military prison and twice tried to kill herself in 2016.

Sentence commuted by Obama

In January 2017, President Barack Obama commuted most of the remainder of her sentence shortly before he left office. But she was swept back up into legal trouble last year when prosecutors investigating Assange subpoenaed her to testify before a grand jury about their interactions.

Although prosecutors granted immunity for her testimony, Manning had vowed not to cooperate in the investigation, saying she had ethical objections, and she was placed in civil detention for contempt of court.

Separately last year, the Justice Department unsealed criminal charges against Assange, who was living in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London. Prosecutors initially charged him with a narrow hacking conspiracy offense, accusing him of agreeing to try to help Manning crack a password that would have let her log onto a military computer system under a different user account, covering her tracks.

But prosecutors later significantly expanded the case against Assange by bringing charges against him under the Espionage Act for soliciting, receiving and publishing classified information - raising novel First Amendment issues. Assange has been fighting extradition in a London court.