U.S. soldier captured by Afghan Taliban will be charged with desertion, according to military statement.
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier held by Taliban-linked insurgents in Afghanistan for five years before being freed in a swap for Guantanamo Bay detainees, will face a court-martial for desertion, the army said Monday.
Bergdahl’s case has generated massive controversy in the United States after it emerged he walked out of his unit willingly, prompting a massive manhunt, and because of the circumstances of his release in return for five militants. Some of his former colleagues have blamed Bergdahl—who could face up to life in prison if convicted—for the deaths of several soldiers on missions looking for him.
In a statement, the army said Bergdahl, 29, would stand trial on two charges: desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty; and misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place.
The only American in uniform to be held by insurgents in the Afghanistan war, Bergdahl was captured by Taliban-linked Haqqani militants after he left his base in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border in June 2009. He was released in May 2014. The charges were announced following a so-called Article 32 hearing to determine probable cause, and the court-martial will likely be at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.
Bergdahl’s attorney Eugene Fidell said the charges went way beyond the scope of any evidence presented during the initial hearing. “I thought that the Article 32 proceeding had shown probable cause for a one-day AWOL [unauthorized leave] and that was it,” he said. In a statement, he added that military authorities had ignored “the advice of the preliminary hearing officer who heard the witnesses.”
Bergdahl’s case and the prisoner swap have become a lightning rod for opponents of President Barack Obama who say he released dangerous extremists who posed a threat to Americans. The five ex-detainees are on supervised release in Qatar. Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump has previously gone as far as to call Bergdahl a “dirty, rotten traitor” and suggested he merited execution.
Fidell said such remarks were defamatory and would taint any prospective jury pool. “We again ask that Donald Trump cease his prejudicial months-long campaign of defamation against our client,” Fidell said in the statement.
The development comes less than a week after hit U.S. podcast Serial began airing a series about the case. The show features phone calls between Bergdahl and Hollywood screenwriter Mark Boal, who wants to make a movie about the soldier. In the conversation, Bergdahl says he walked off his base in Afghanistan in a stunt to prove he was like fictional CIA movie spy Jason Bourne.
“Doing what I did was me saying I am like Jason Bourne,” Bergdahl told Boal, referring to the CIA assassin played by Matt Damon in a string of Hollywood action thrillers. “I had this fantastic idea that I was going to prove to the world that I was the real thing, that I could be what it is that all those guys out there who go to the movies and watch those movies, they want to be that.”
Serial, a mix of investigative journalism and first-person narrative, has interviewed former soldiers deployed with Bergdahl and promises that the second episode will present the militants’ version of events.
Bergdahl said he was held in basement-style rooms with no light. “There’s times when I’d wake up and it’s just so dark, like I would wake up not even remembering what I was,” he said. “It’s like you’re standing there screaming in your mind.”