SAN ANTONIO (Reuters) - Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl endured some of the worst abuse suffered by any U.S. prisoner of war in decades while held by the Taliban for five years, a defense official testified on Friday, while another said Bergdahl should not be imprisoned for leaving his post in Afghanistan.
But a U.S. military prosecutor said at the end of a two-day pre-trial hearing that Bergdahl intended to desert his post, his actions fundamentally altered American operations in Afghanistan and that he should be held accountable for his actions.
The testimony came at the Army’s Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio in a hearing to decide if Bergdahl, 29, should be court-martialed on charges brought against him in March of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. Bergdahl faces a sentence of up to life in prison if convicted.
Bergdahl, dressed in his Army service uniform with his hair in a crew cut, elected not to testify.
Testifying for the defense, Terrence Russell, an expert with the military’s Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, said Bergdahl suffered torture, abuse and neglect at the hands of Taliban forces, including months of beatings.
After the beatings, Bergdahl was held for 3-1/2 years in a metal cage barely big enough to stand in, living in isolation and often blindfolded, Russell testified. Any more beatings would have killed him, Russell said.
“His experience ranks at the same echelon of the most horrible conditions of the last 60 years,” said Russell, who debriefed Bergdahl after the soldier was freed by the Taliban in 2014 in exchange for the U.S. release of five Taliban prisoners held at the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Russell has debriefed about 125 U.S. POWs, isolated people and detainees.
Bergdahl never gave up trying to escape despite living in deplorable conditions in which he was first beaten and then left to waste away, Russell said.
Russell dismissed as outrageous claims that Bergdahl was a Taliban sympathizer or tried to dishonor the military.
“He had to fight the enemy alone for four years and 11 months,” he said at the hearing, occasionally wiping back tears.
Major General Kenneth Dahl, who led the military’s investigation of Bergdahl’s disappearance and capture, also said Bergdahl was not a Taliban sympathizer. Dahl characterized Bergdahl as unrealistically idealistic soldier who left his post to report concerns about his unit’s leadership to a general at another base.
Bergdahl was motivated to act over what he saw as problems of leadership so severe that he felt his unit was in danger, Dahl said, adding that Bergdahl’s views of those around him at times were naive and uninformed.
“I do not believe that there is a jail sentence at the end of this process,” said Dahl, who led 22 people in the two-month investigation and interviewed Bergdahl for a day and a half.
Military prosecutor Major Margaret Kurz said although Bergdahl suffered greatly, he must be held accountable for his actions. “There are consequences to those actions and the consequences should be a general court-martial.”
Bergdahl’s defense lawyer, Eugene Fidell, said Bergdahl should be held accountable for a one-day absence without leave and continue to be evaluated medically.
Bergdahl disappeared on June 30, 2009, from Combat Outpost Mest-Lalak in Afghanistan’s Paktika Province.
He left at night and planned to run 19 miles (31 km) to a command post, believing that reports of him missing would help him win an audience with a general when he arrived, Dahl said. Instead, Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban 10 to 12 hours after he left.
A massive search by U.S. forces for Bergdahl lasted 45 days, covering vast and difficult terrain.
“My conclusion is that there were no soldiers killed who were deliberately looking for Sergeant Bergdahl,” Dahl said.
Prosecutors told the hearing Bergdahl snuck off in the middle of the night as part of a plan weeks in the making.
The presiding officer at the so-called Article 32 hearing, Lieutenant Colonel Mark Visger, will recommend the course of action for resolving Bergdahl’s case, whether it should proceed to a court-martial or handled in some other manner. He did not release a timetable for his decision.
Reporting by Will Dunham