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Bergdahl to Be Court-Martialed for Desertion and Could Face Life in Prison

Bowe Bergdahl is to be court-martialed for deserting his post in Afghanistan.

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Capping one of the most controversial episodes of the long Afghan war, a high-ranking Army commander ordered Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl to face a court-martial for abandoning his post in eastern Afghanistan in 2009 — an episode that sparked a searing debate over how far the United States should go to win his freedom.  

The decision to bring Bergdahl before a military court was made by Gen. Robert Abrams, head of the U.S. Army Forces Command. In September, the Army officer who investigated Bergdahl’s disappearance, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, recommended a light punishment that did not include jail time given the torture Bergdahl, 29, is believed to have endured during his five years in Taliban hands. Lt. Col. Mark Visger, the officer in charge of Bergdahl’s Article 32 hearing, has also recommended Bergdahl stay out of prison.

Abrams, though, ignored Dahl’s recommendation and ordered that Bergdahl face a full military court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. If convicted by a panel of his military peers, Bergdahl faces the possibility of life in prison; he can also request a bench trial. In a press release announcing the charges, the Pentagon said the trial had yet to be scheduled and would take place at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Bergdahl’s civilian defense lawyer, Eugene Fidell, said in a statement Monday that the decision is against “the advice of the preliminary hearing officer who heard the witnesses.” He also called on Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump, who has repeatedly called Bergdahl a traitor, to “cease his prejudicial months-long campaign of defamation.” Fidell also asked the House and Senate armed services committees to “avoid any further statements or actions that prejudice our client’s right to a fair trial.”

The decision to court-martial Bergdahl is likely to reignite the politically charged debate over whether the Obama administration erred by agreeing to free five Taliban prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay to win the soldier’s release. Many in the military have called for Bergdahl to face a stiff punishment because of persistent rumors that other Americans died during the intensive initial attempt to find the soldier after he disappeared from his base in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009.

Dahl, whose report is the basis for the court-martial, also said that no troops died specifically looking for Bergdahl. Dahl also said that there is no evidence to support claims that he intended to walk to India or China or that he sympathized with the Taliban.

Bergdahl’s disappearance prompted a large operation to find him that ultimately involved thousands of American personnel. In May 2014, he was swapped for five Taliban prisoners, something that a report by House Republicans released last week said broke several laws.

The White House held a Rose Garden ceremony with Bergdahl’s parents after the soldier’s release, but the deal came under immediate criticism when National Security Advisor Susan Rice said Bergdahl served with “honor and distinction.” Critics, including some Democrats, accused the White House of glossing over the fact that Bergdahl had left his base voluntarily, endangering other troops. Later, the administration changed its line and said that, Bergdahl’s potential failings aside, it had the obligation to do everything possible to win the freedom of a missing soldier.

The court-martial announcement comes as season two of the hugely popular Serial podcast, which will feature hours of interviews with Bergdahl detailing his desertion, capture, and release, is getting underway.

Photo credit: U.S. Army/Getty Images

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