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FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - A military judge found on Monday that politics had been unlawfully injected into the rare court-martial of a U.S. Army general but refused to dismiss the sexual assault charges against him.
The judge said he would allow Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair to renew an offer to plead guilty to some lesser charges in exchange for the most serious allegations of coercive sex acts being dropped.
Military leaders at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, rejected a previous such proposal by the one-star general after giving improper consideration to a letter from the main accuser's lawyer that invoked politics while urging them to deny the offer, Colonel James Pohl ruled.
Debate about the role that influences outside the military chain of command played in Sinclair's prosecution halted the day's scheduled testimony and could result in an indefinite delay in the trial.
"This is an unprecedented situation," said lead defense attorney Richard Scheff. "It's a mess, a mess not created by us."
Defense attorneys had been expected to question the female Army captain who, in a tearful account last week, said Sinclair twice forced her to engage in oral sex when she tried to break off their secret three-year affair and also threatened to kill her if she told anyone about the relationship.
The married general denies sexually assaulting the captain 17 years his junior and says the relationship was consensual, although inappropriate by military standards.
Pohl put the cross-examination on hold and dismissed jurors until Tuesday to take up a motion Sinclair's attorneys filed after the government disclosed new email evidence over the weekend.
Scheff said the emails proved the convening authority in the case, Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson, rejected the guilty plea offer after the captain's special victims counsel warned Anderson that it "would have an adverse effect on my client and the Army's fight against sexual assault."
The December letter from the counsel, Captain Cassie Fowler, also referred to a debate among U.S. lawmakers about whether prosecution decisions in sexual assault cases should be removed from military commanders.
Anderson, who now commands international forces in Afghanistan, testified by phone from the Swedish embassy in Kabul that neither the contents of the letter nor any of his superior officers convinced him to deny Sinclair's offer.
"I asked one simple question, what does the victim want to do, and the answer was she wants to proceed to trial," Anderson said. "That's what I based my decision on."
Pohl said an email Anderson sent a few days after the letter from Fowler suggested another influence at play.
"I have read the letter and made my decision," Anderson wrote to a military lawyer involved in the case.
The judge criticized the prosecution for waiting so long to produce the emails sought by the defense and for bringing them to light after the trial was underway.
But Pohl disagreed with defense lawyers that dismissing the sexual assault charges was the proper fix.
"What we have here is a wrong," the judge said. "To dismiss the charges based on this wrong would not be appropriate."
The judge gave Sinclair's lawyers until Tuesday to decide whether they will submit another plea offer. A new convening authority would be chosen to consider the offer, though details were still being worked out about that selection process.
It was unclear if the trial would be put on hold should Sinclair renew his offer.
Defense attorneys would not discuss specifics of the prior offer. They have said in the past that Sinclair proposed to plead guilty to the military crimes of adultery and conduct unbecoming an officer if the sex assault charges were dropped.
The general pleaded guilty last week to lesser offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and possible dismissal from the Army, but his attorneys said they could move to withdraw that plea after the events on Monday.
"We're trying to figure out our strategy," Scheff said.
The 34-year-old captain on Friday recounted her rocky relationship with Sinclair, who as a result of her accusations faces a forcible sodomy charge that could send the 51-year-old general to prison for life.
He is accused of grabbing her genitalia against her will and of having sex with her in public, charges that saw him removed from command in southern Afghanistan in 2012.
Editing by David Adams, Bernadette Baum, Jonathan Oatis and Eric Walsh