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US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning celebrates 'first steps of freedom'

Chelsea Manning, the US soldier who was sentenced to 35 years in a military prison for giving classified materials to WikiLeaks, says she is excited about what lies ahead after her release.

"I'm figuring things out right now - which is exciting, awkward, fun, and all new for me," Pvt Manning said in an emailed statement.

She tweeted a picture of her feet in trainers - with the caption "First steps of freedom!!" - after walking away from the Fort Leavenworth lock-up in Kansas having spent seven years behind bars.

Pvt Manning's immediate plans, including living arrangements, remained unclear.

She tweeted after then-President Barack Obama granted her clemency in January that she planned to move to Maryland, where she has an aunt.

Pvt Manning originally comes from Crescent, Oklahoma.

"After another anxious four months of waiting, the day has finally arrived," Ms Manning said in Wednesday's statement.

"I am looking forward to so much! Whatever is ahead of me is far more important than the past."

Ms Manning, who is transgender and was known as Bradley Manning before she transitioned in prison, was convicted in 2013 of 20 counts, including six Espionage Act violations, theft and computer fraud.

She was acquitted of the most serious charge of aiding the enemy.

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Pvt Manning, a former intelligence analyst in Iraq, has acknowledged leaking the materials, which included battlefield video.

She said she wanted to expose what she considered to be the US military's disregard of the effects of war on civilians and that she released information that she did not believe would harm the US.

Critics said the leaks laid bare some of the nation's most-sensitive secrets and endangered information sources, prompting the State Department to help some of those people move to protect their safety.

Several ambassadors were recalled, expelled or reassigned because of embarrassing disclosures.

Pvt Manning, who was arrested in 2010, filed a transgender rights lawsuit in prison and attempted suicide twice last year, according to her lawyers.

"We can all finally truly celebrate the strength and heroism she has shown in surviving and sharing her truth and life with all of us," Chase Strangio, Ms Manning's attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in Wednesday's statement that included her post-release comments.

"Through extended periods of solitary confinement and up against the government's insistence on denying her medical care and existence as a woman, Chelsea has emerged with grace, resilience, and an inspiring amount of love for others," Mr Strangio added.

"I am humbled to fight alongside such a fierce advocate for justice."

President Obama's decision to commute Pvt Manning's sentence to about seven years, including the time she spent locked up before being convicted, drew strong criticism from members of Congress and others, with Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan calling the move "just outrageous."

In a statement last week - her first public comments since Mr Obama intervened - Ms Manning thanked that former president and said that letters of support from veterans and fellow transgender people inspired her "to work toward making life better for others".

"For the first time, I can see a future for myself as Chelsea," she said.

"I can imagine surviving and living as the person who I am and can finally be in the outside world. Freedom used to be something that I dreamed of but never allowed myself to fully imagine."

Her lawyers have said that Ms Manning was subjected to violence in prison and argued the military mistreated her by requiring her to serve her sentence in an all-male prison, restricting her physical and mental health care and not allowing her to keep a feminine haircut.

The Department of Defence has repeatedly declined to discuss Pvt Manning's treatment in prison.

The Army said that Pvt Manning would remain on active duty in a special, unpaid status that will legally entitle her to military medical care, along with commissary privileges.

An Army spokeswoman, Lt Col Jennifer Johnson, said Ms Manning will be on "excess leave" while her court-martial conviction is under appellate review.

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Chelsea Manning (then Bradley Manning), the former military intelligence analyst gave classified information to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks in 2010.

He was acquitted of aiding the enemy, the gravest charge laid against him by the US government. He was, however, found guilty of 19 other charges including espionage, theft and computer fraud.

Following the verdict, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange accused President Barack Obama of "national security extremism," referring to Manning "the most important journalistic source the world has ever seen".

"The government kept Bradley Manning in a cage, stripped him naked and isolated him in order to break him, an act formally condemned by the United Nations Special Rapporteur for torture. This was never a fair trial," Assange said from inside the Ecuadorean Embassy in London.

"It is a dangerous precedent and an example of national security extremism. It is a short-sighted judgment that cannot be tolerated and it must be reversed."

“It’s hard not to draw the conclusion that Manning's trial was about sending a message: the US government will come after you,” Amnesty International noted.

Making a statement alongside his guilty pleas in 2013, Manning said he wanted to reveal the “bloodlust” of the US military and so-called disregard for human life.

He transmitted his first batch of papers to WikiLeaks, founded by Assange, on 3 February 2001 with an attached note. “This is possibly one of the more significant documents of our time, removing the fog of war, and revealing the true nature of the 21st century asymmetric warfare. Have a good day.”

Thereafter he handed over more than 700,000 documents, including battlefield notes from Iraq and Afghanistan and a video of a US helicopter attack in Baghdad. Last month marked the fifth anniversary of the release of the 'Collateral Murder' video which showed a July 12, 2007 US Apache attack helicopter attack upon individuals in a Baghdad suburb.

The attack killed twelve people including a Reuters photographer and his driver.

On August 21, 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in prison. On the day after her sentencing, Manning announced via a statement on the morning talk show Today that she is transgender and wanted to be known as Chelsea.

The whistleblower behind the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, called Manning a 'hero'.

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