US Army 'deserter' held by Afghan militants to appear in court

  • AFP, Washington
  • Updated: Dec 22, 2015 09:41 IST
US Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal is pictured in this undated handout photo. Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afghanistan and became a Taliban prisoner for five years, will be arraigned at Fort Bragg in a court-martial with a potential life sentence. (Reuters Photo)

US Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was charged for desertion and held by insurgents in Afghanistan for five years before being freed in a prisoner swap, will appear in court on Tuesday.

The 29-year-old soldier will appear before a military tribunal in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to be formally arraigned for court martial on two charges that could see him face life in prison.

Bergdahl's case has already triggered a highly-charged public debate -- amid allegations that his actions saw comrades killed during the effort to find him and questions about the US decision to free Taliban prisoners in exchange for his return.

But Friday's public hearing will be the non-commissioned officer's first appearance before a judge since he disappeared from Combat Outpost Mest-Malak in Paktika Province, Afghanistan on June 20, 2009.

After leaving the base, leaving behind his firearm, the young soldier was quickly captured by militants from the feared Haqqani faction, a Taliban-lined outfit blamed for many deadly attacks on US soldiers.

A search and rescue mission was launched and some of Bergdahl's former comrades have accused him of putting their lives in danger through his actions.

Nevertheless, the military worked hard for his release and he was eventually released to US special forces in May last year after US authorities released five Afghan detainees from Guantanamo Bay.

Bergdahl was reassigned to administrative work at a US Army base in Texas but an investigation had been launched. In March he was charged with "desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty" and "misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place”.

He has not entered a plea, but his lawyers have already protested that the charges go beyond what they see as the evidence against Bergdahl.

They have also protested that remarks by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump -- who called Bergdahl a "dirty, rotten traitor" -- added to the passions surrounding the case and may bias a jury.

'Wanted to be Jason Bourne'

For his part, the sergeant has told a Hollywood screenwriter researching for a movie that he walked off base in a bid to prove he was capable of solo heroics like fictional ex-CIA assassin Jason Bourne.

"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 ... want to be," Bergdahl told Mark Boal, in a call broadcast as part of investigative radio show "Serial”.

Bergdahl told Boal his original plan was not to get himself captured but to trek to another military base to draw attention to what he called a failure in leadership in his unit.

He wanted to create a "Dustwun" -- the radio signal for "duty status, whereabouts unknown" -- that would scramble the military and the CIA so that, when he returned, he might be able to get the ear of a general.

But once off base, by his own account, Bergdahl quickly realised he was in trouble.

He decided to appease the anger he would face by gathering intelligence and so modified his plan, hoping to track insurgents planting roadside bombs and return with this information as a "bonus point."

But -- moving across the terrain at night -- he walked wildly off course and found himself in open desert with no cover when the sun came up.

He said he was spotted by six or seven men armed with AK-47s and travelling on motorcycles and denied reports that he had tried to resist capture.

"They pulled up and that was it," he said. "I'm not stupid enough to try and knife off a bunch of guys with AK-47s."

The White House and the Pentagon defend themselves against charges that it was wrong to make concessions to negotiate Bergdahl's release by insisting that no US service member is left behind.

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