Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could face a life sentence for leaving his post in June 2009 after the Hailey native’s case was referred Monday for trial by a general court-martial.
A preliminary hearing officer, Lt. Col. Mark Visger, had suggested that Bergdahl’s case be moved to a special misdemeanor-level military court and that Bergdahl, 29, should not face any jail time for his actions. But Gen. Robert B. Abrams, head of Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., rejected the recommendation.
In a statement issued Monday, Bergdahl’s defense attorney, Eugene Fidell, said he hoped the case would not go to a court-martial. Instead, he asked that Bergdahl be given nonjudicial punishment, better known as an Article 15. Under that proceeding, Bergdahl would have faced no more than a year of confinement.
Bergdahl was held by the Haqqani Network, a terrorist group aligned with the Taliban, for nearly five years after he walked off his post in Afghanistan on June 30, 2009. He was returned to the U.S. in May 2014 as part of a controversial prisoner swap for five members of the Taliban held in Guantanamo Bay.
He was charged in March with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy.
An initial U.S. military investigation in 2009 concluded that Bergdahl deliberately walked away, based on evidence available at the time. Since his release, some former soldiers who served with him have labeled him a deserter and said he should be held accountable for leaving his post. Others have said that troops were put in danger as they tried to find Bergdahl.
Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who investigated the case for the Army, said that no troops died searching for Bergdahl and that there was no evidence that the soldier sympathized with the Taliban. Dahl’s report was used as the basis for the prosecution of Bergdahl at the hearing.
Fidell’s defense team argued that at worst Bergdahl had been AWOL for a day, before his capture hours later. Fidell said Bergdahl tried several times to escape and did not reveal any military secrets.
He also said the Army was partially responsible for allowing Bergdahl to enlist even though he was dismissed from U.S. Coast Guard basic training because of a depression disorder.
Separately on Monday, Fidell, a military justice expert who is also a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, complained about political figures who have made derogatory statements about Bergdahl.
Fidell asked that GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump “cease his prejudicial months-long campaign of defamation against our client.” Fidell previously has complained that Trump has called Bergdahl a traitor.
Fidell also asked the House and Senate Armed Services committees to avoid further statements “that prejudice our client’s right to a fair trial.” The House committee last week issued a 98-page report criticizing the Obama administration’s decision to swap the five former Taliban leaders for Bergdahl.
Fidell pointed to the fifth page of the report that said the committee would remain abreast of the disciplinary process and ensure that “Sgt. Bergdahl’s behavior is adjudicated as required.” Fidell said he read that as a call to “hammer” Bergdahl for his actions.
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Starting Wednesday, reporters with the Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio will host a follow-up podcast, Speaking of Serial, discussing Bergdahl’s case, Serial’s reporting and what happens when an Idahoan becomes the center of international news.