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Bowe Bergdahl Is Going to Face a Court-Martial Trial on Desertion Charges

After a three-month preliminary hearing, desertion and misbehavior charges against the 29-year-old soldier who walked off his Army base in Afghanistan were referred for a full trial.
Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, left, and defense lead counsel Eugene Fidell, center, look on as Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl is questioned during a preliminary hearing. (Image by Brigitte Woosley/AP)

Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the US soldier who walked off his Army base in Afghanistan and was held captive for five years by the Taliban, will be court-martialed on desertion and misbehavior charges after his case was referred to a full trial after a three month-long preliminary hearing, his attorney said on Monday.

One of Bergdahl's defense lawyers, Eugene Fidell, issued a statement announcing the referral of the charges following the Article 32 hearing — frequently compared to a civilian grand jury hearing — that began in September. The attorney noted that the "convening authority did not follow the advice of the preliminary hearing officer who heard the witnesses."

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"Lt Colonel Rosenblatt, Captain Foster and I had hoped the case would not go in this direction," Fidell wrote on behalf of Bergdahl's defense counsel. "We will continue to defend Sgt. Bergdahl as the case proceeds."

Related: Bowe Bergdahl Explains Why He Walked Off His Afghan Military Base in New 'Serial' Podcast

Bergdahl, was just 23 and a private first class in the Army, when he walked away from his military base in Afghanistan's Paktika province and was captured by militants in 2009. The soldier, who was promoted to sergeant while in captivity, spent five years as a hostage, and was frequently tortured by his captors.

He was finally released in May 2014 in exchange for five Taliban commanders who were being held at the US prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Intense political and media scrutiny followed the high-profile prisoner exchange, heightened by assertions from Republican lawmakers that the swap, made without Congressional approval, was illegal.

In March this year, Bergdahl, who is now 29, was formally charged with deserting his base and "misbehavior before the enemy," which carries a possible life sentence.

Watch the VICE News documentary Embedded in Northern Afghanistan: The Resurgence of the Taliban:

Since the charges were brought against Bergdahl, his lawyers have contended that their client has been subjected to a trial by media and the public. The case has also become a political football, with members of Congress and 2016 presidential candidates also weighing in on the issue.

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Bergdahl's attorneys have argued that prospective Republican nominee Donald Trump in particular has "materially threatened" the prospect of a fair trial by making repeated "defamatory" statements about Bergdahl to the media and while speaking on the stump. In the failed motion, the defense presented at least 18 instances where Trump had made derogatory comments about Bergdahl, including that the sergeant was a "dirty rotten traitor" who "went to the other side."

Fidell previously used that argument as the basis to file a motion to try and get the court to expedite a hearing to publicly release documents in the case. The motion, which was rejected by the US Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces late last month, piggybacked off an earlier petition filed by a number of media outlets, including the Associated Press, Hearst Newspapers, and the New York Times, which requested public access to an unclassified summary report penned by Major General Kenneth Dahl, who led the Army's investigation into events surrounding Bergdahl's disappearance.

Related: Bowe Bergdahl's Motion to Expedite Hearing Because of Donald Trump Insults Is Denied

Major General Dahl earlier testified at a preliminary hearing that he did not believe the sergeant had intended to permanently flee or join the Taliban, and said that a jail sentence for Bergdahl would be "inappropriate." Dahl also said he had found no evidence to support assertion that any soldiers had been killed while searching for Bergdahl over the course of his 59-day investigation, despite claims by Trump and others that six had specifically died while doing so. Dahl's report also includes a transcript of an interview with Bergdahl, which is also being sought for the public record.

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On Monday, Fidell reiterated calls for Trump to "cease his prejudicial months-long campaign of defamation against our client."

The lawyer also called on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to "avoid any further statements or actions that prejudice our client's right to a fair trial."

The high profile case will receive even more attention in coming weeks. It is currently the subject of the latest season of Serial, apopular podcast series. In the first episode released last week, Bergdahl described his reasons for walking off his base, which he said was to create a "DUSTWUN" — short for duty status whereabouts unknown — a radio call issued when a soldier goes missing in combat or is taken captive. Bergdahl claimed his actions were intended to call attention to his serious concerns over leadership in the military.

"What I was seeing from my first unit, all the way up into Afghanistan… was basically leadership failure to the point that the lives of the guys standing next to me were literally — from what I could see — in danger of something seriously going wrong and somebody being killed," Bergdahl said.

Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields