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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Bowe Bergdahl verdict: no prison time for US soldier in desertion case

The controversial case has been widely followed across the world. Rob Crilly reports from New York

The judge ruled that Bergdahl should receive no prison time. EPA/US ARMY
The judge ruled that Bergdahl should receive no prison time. EPA/US ARMY

Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier who spent five years in Taliban captivity, has been spared prison time for abandoning his post in Afghanistan after a military judge ordered he be dishonourably discharged.

Bergdahl, 31, was tortured and kept in a cage before being released by the Haqqani Network, a Taliban-allied militia, in exchange for five prisoners held at Guantanamo Bay.

He pleaded guilty to desertion and misbehaviour before the enemy and had faced up to life in prison.

Read: Rob Crilly profiles Bowe Bergdahl: the man who left his post

Instead, Colonel Jeffery Nance, who presided over sentencing at Fort Bragg, ordered he be demoted to private, discharged – losing all benefits – and that he pay a fine of $1000 a month for the next 10 months.

“This has been a terrible ordeal,” Eugene Fidell, one of Bergdahl's lawyers, said after the hearing. “He's certainly glad this is over.”

The sentence brings to a close a politically divisive case that polarised opinion on how to treat a soldier who put his comrades at risk when he walked out of his base in Afghanistan in 2009 but who suffered badly at the hands of his captors.

Barack Obama was widely criticised for freeing senior Taliban prisoners as part of a deal in 2014.

And the court heard powerful testimony from two soldiers wounded during the search for him and from the wife of a third serviceman, who suffered serious head injuries.

Sentencing was further complicated by the intervention of President Donald Trump. During the election campaign he suggested Bergdahl should be shot or thrown from an aeroplane without a parachute. More recently he declined opportunities to distance himself from those sentiments.

Defence attorneys argued that it made it impossible for their client to be treated fairly.

Col Nance rejected their motion to dismiss the case but suggest the provocative words might encourage to show leniency.

“I will consider the president’s comments as mitigation evidence as I arrive at an appropriate sentence,” he said on Monday.

Throughout the case, Bergdahl's lawyers argued he was a conscientious young soldier who failed to understand the consequences of his actions when he deserted, apparently in an effort to alert senior officers to problems in his unit.

For his part, Mr Bergdahl made a surprise appearance on Monday, recounting his experiences as a prisoner of the Taliban. He gave testimony over two hours and apologised to the wounded men.

“I would like everyone who searched for me to know it was never my intention for anyone to be hurt, and I never expected that to happen,” he said, pausing as he choked up with emotion at times.

“My words alone can't take away their pain.”

He described being beaten and kept in a cage, and explained the emotional damage of never knowing if each day would be his last.

“The worst was the constant, just the constant deterioration of everything. The constant pain from my body falling apart. The constant screams from my mind,” he said.

“It was the years of waiting to see whether or not the next time someone opens the door if that would be the person coming to execute you.”

He added that he suffers nightmares and sleeps with a torch by his bed.

Earlier that day the court heard from the wife of Sgt Mark Allen, who was badly wounded during a missing to gather intelligence from two villages in July 2009 as part of the manhunt.

Shannon Allen’s voice faltered as she described how brain injuries meant her husband was confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak to his daughter, who was an infant when he was hurt.

"He's not able to reach out for her or talk to her,” she said.

“He's never had the chance to really play with her or help coach her sports or ask about her day.”