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United States

US army deserter Bowe Bergdahl avoids jail time in sentence that Donald Trump calls a ‘disgrace’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 7:37am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 November, 2017, 7:45am

Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afghanistan and triggered a search that left some of his comrades severely wounded, was spared a prison sentence by a military judge on Friday in what President Donald Trump blasted as a “complete and total disgrace.”

The judge gave no explanation of how he arrived at his decision, but he reviewed evidence that included the five years Bergdahl was held captive by the Taliban and the wounds suffered by troops who searched for him, including one who now uses a wheelchair and cannot speak.

The case was politically divisive. President Barack Obama traded Taliban prisoners to bring Bergdahl back, drawing sharp Republican criticism. As a presidential candidate, Trump called for the soldier to face stiff punishment. He could have received up to life in prison.

The judge also gave the 31-year-old a dishonourable discharge, reduced his rank from sergeant to private and ordered him to forfeit pay equal to US$1,000 per month for 10 months.

In court, Bergdahl appeared tense, grimaced and clenched his jaw. His lawyers put their arms around him and one patted him on the back. One defence lawyer cried after the sentence was announced.

Defence lawyer Eugene Fidell told reporters that his client had “looked forward to today for a long time.”

Bergdahl “is grateful to everyone who searched for him,” especially those who “heroically sustained injuries,” Fidell added.

Trump’s statement came in a tweet about 90 minutes after the sentencing. “The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military,” the president wrote.

Bergdahl pleaded guilty last month to desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy. He has said he left his post in 2009 with the intention of reaching other commanders and drawing attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.

The judge, Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, had wide leeway in deciding the sentence because Bergdahl made no deal with prosecutors to limit his punishment.

Prosecutors sought a serious penalty because of wounds suffered by service members who searched for Bergdahl after he disappeared.

The defence tried to counter that evidence with testimony about Bergdahl’s suffering as a captive, his contributions to military intelligence and survival training, and his mental health problems. The argument for leniency also cited Trump’s harsh campaign-trail comments.

US soldier Bowe Bergdahl, branded a ‘rotten traitor’ by Trump, pleads guilty to desertion

The dishonourable discharge threatens to deprive Bergdahl of most or all his veterans’ benefits, but it also triggers an automatic appeal to a higher military court. Before that, a general who can reduce, but not increase, the sentence will also review it.

Fidell told reporters that he looks forward to the appeals court review of Trump’s campaign statements, which included calling Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” and declaring that he should be shot or thrown out of an air plane without a parachute.

As a candidate, Trump “made really extraordinary reprehensible comments targeted directly at our client,” Fidell told reporters on Friday, calling the situation “one of the most preposterous states of affairs” in American legal history. He said the defence team sees “an extremely strong basis for dismissal of the case.”

Earlier in the week, Bergdahl described the brutal conditions of his captivity, including beatings with copper wire, unending bouts of gastrointestinal problems brought on by squalid conditions and maddening periods of isolation. After several escape attempts, he was placed in a cage for four years, and his muscles atrophied to the point he could barely stand or walk.

A psychiatrist testified that his decision to leave his post was influenced by a schizophrenia-like condition called schizotypal personality disorder that made it hard to understand the consequences of his actions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder brought on partly by a difficult childhood.

Prosecutors, who had asked for a sentence of 14 years in prison, did not speak to reporters. But one of them, Major Justin Oshana, said during closing arguments on Thursday that Bergdahl “does not have a monopoly on suffering as a result of his choices.”

Scores of troops joined in an all-out search for Bergdahl in the weeks after he abandoned his remote post near the Afghan town of Mest.