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No prison time for US soldier Bergdahl in Afghanistan desertion case

US Army Sgt Bowe Bergdahl leaves the Fort Bragg military courthouse after the fourth day of his sentencing proceedings, on October 30, 2017. He has pleaded guilty to deserting his post in Afghanistan, but then was captured and held five years by insurgent
SARA D. DAVIS (GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP)
He faced up to life in prison after pleading guilty to charges of desertion and endangering fellow troops

Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier and former Taliban captive branded a "traitor" by President Donald Trump, will serve no time in prison for deserting his post in Afghanistan, a military judge decided Friday.

After a politically charged trial that inflamed US divisions over the 16-year-old Afghan war, Colonel Jeffery Nance ordered Bergdahl to be dishonorably discharged, his rank slashed from sergeant to private, and that he pay a $10,000 fine.

During last year's presidential campaign Donald Trump said he believed Bergdahl should be put to death for abandoning his post in the war zone. He responded to the news of his sentencing, calling it a "complete and total disgrace" that he wasn't given any prison time by the military court in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

"The decision on Sergeant Bergdahl is a complete and total disgrace to our Country and to our Military," Trump he tweeted shortly after departing for an extended trip to Asia.

Earlier this week, Colonel Jeffery Nance, judge in the case, warned that Trump's repeated comments on the case could "mitigate" the sentencing.

SARA D. DAVIS (GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA/AFP)

Bergdahl had faced up to life in prison after pleading guilty to charges of desertion and endangering his fellow troops when he abandoned his unit in a small camp in eastern Afghanistan in 2009. 

The case inflamed US political divisions over the Afghan war, with supporters calling Bergdahl a victim of the 16 year old conflict and detractors labelling him a turncoat whose action led to severe injuries of fellow soldiers in his unit on search missions for him.

Prosecutors had demanded harsh punishment, calling on testimony from witnesses injured -- including one soldier shot in the head and permanently disabled -- while on search missions in eastern Afghanistan after Bergdahl disappeared in 2009.

But his defenders argued that he has already suffered from five years of brutal treatment by the Taliban and the related Haqqani group, before being released in a prisoner exchange for five Taliban fighters in 2014.

He was captured by the Taliban shortly after deserting his post and turned over to the guerilla insurgent group, which held him in nearby Pakistan.

The lengthy trial revealed that during his captivity Bergdahl had been tortured and held in isolation for much of the time.

The proceedings also raised questions over whether he had originally been fit to serve in the military. Before joining the army, Bergdahl was rejected by the Coast Guard as "psychologically unfit" after only 26 days of basic training. 

Bergdahl's lawyers tried several times to have the charges against him thrown out, saying comments by Trump and Senator John McCain in favor of a heavy prison sentence constituted "unlawful command influence" -- when senior officials with power over the military exert potentially prejudicial influence over the court.

Nance repeatedly rejected the argument that he could be biased or pressured by Trump's statements. 

But earlier this week during the sentencing phase of the trial he warned that Trump's comments nevertheless could "mitigate" the sentencing.

Bergdahl claimed he had left his post in 2009 to walk through the Taliban-filled eastern Afghanistan countryside to a larger US base to report command problems in his unit.

The head of the army's investigation, Major General Kenneth Dahl, told the court that Bergdahl may have been delusional at the time. Dahl also said that putting Bergdahl in prison after all he had been through at the hands of the Haqqani group would be "inappropriate."

Detractors labelled Bergdahl a turncoat whose action led to severe injuries of fellow soldiers in his unit. Prosecutors over the past week called on testimony from soldiers who were injured while on search missions for Bergdahl, including one shot in the head and permanently disabled.

But supporters consider Bergdahl to be a victim of the war.

The case put focus on the strains that the lengthy conflict in Afghanistan has placed on US armed forces. Going on more than 16 years, it has become the longest running war in US history.

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