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On the heels of 'Serial' launch, Bowe Bergdahl faces court-martial

Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl could face a much more serious penalty than the Army's investigating officer recommended during the pre-trial phase of the investigation.

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US Army Sergeant Bowe Berghdal is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the US Army and received by Reuters on May 31, 2014. The military charges against Bergdahl, a former prisoner of the Taliban in Afghanistan charged with desertion, were referred on Monday for trial by general court-martial, the US Army Forces Command said.

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A top Army general has ordered that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl face a general court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the Army said Monday.

The ruling by General Robert B. Abrams, head of Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., means Sergeant Bergdahl – a former captive of the Taliban in Afghanistan who was charged earlier this year – could face a penalty much graver than that recommended by the Army’s investigating officer.

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“The convening authority did not follow the advice of the preliminary hearing officer who heard the witnesses,” Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl’s lawyer, said in a statement. Bergdahl’s defense team, he went on, “had hoped the case would not go in this direction. We will continue to defend Sgt. Bergdahl as the case proceeds.”

Bergdahl spent five years as a Taliban prisoner after disappearing from his post in Paktika Province, Afghanistan, in June 2009. In May 2014, he was released as part of a controversial trade that freed five detainees from the military prison in Guantànamo Bay.

In March this year, Bergdahl was charged with one count of desertion and one count of misbehavior before the enemy by endanger the safety of a command, unit, or place. The Article 32 investigation into his case – military proceedings to determine whether or not he merits a court-martial – took place in September.

At the time, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl, who led the inquiry, testified in favor of Bergdahl, whom he said felt remorse for causing panic during his disappearance, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

“I do not believe that there is a jail sentence at the end of this process,” Major General Dahl told the military court at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas.

But General Abrams on Monday decided to refer Bergdahl’s case to a general court-martial, which means Bergdahl could face a life sentence for endangering troops who had searched for him after he left his post.

The Army’s announcement comes just days after the popular podcast, “Serial,” released its second season, which features Bergdahl speaking publicly for the first time at length about his ordeal. The new episodes include snippets of more than 25 hours interviews between "Zero Dark Thirty" writer Mark Boal and Bergdahl, who gave permission to use the tapes after listening to the show's first season.

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The season’s first episode also included Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump saying, “In the old days ... deserters were shot,” in a snapshot of the uphill battle for sympathy that Bergdahl faces; his lawyers hope that his participation in “Serial” might help with that struggle.

After the Army’s announcement Monday, Mr. Fidell said, "We again ask that Donald Trump cease his prejudicial months-long campaign of defamation against our client. We also ask that the House and Senate Armed Services Committees avoid any further statements or actions that prejudice our client’s right to a fair trial."

This report contains material from Reuters.