American soldier and former Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl has been charged with desertion over his disappearance from an Afghan outpost in 2009 and could face life in confinement, the Army announced today.
Bergdahl was freed after five years in Taliban captivity in a controversial deal last year in which the U.S. agreed to release five mid- to high-level Taliban figures from detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As part of the deal, the Taliban five were relocated to Qatar.
After Bergdahl's dramatic return to the U.S., the Army launched an investigation into whether the soldier willfully left his post in Afghanistan before he was taken by the Taliban in 2009, as some Afghan war veterans alleged.
The Army said today Bergdahl has been charged with two counts under the Uniform Code of Military Justice: one count of "desertion with intent to shirk important or hazardous duty" and one count of "misbehavior before the enemy by endangering the safety of a command, unit or place."
The second count is the more severe of the two, carrying a potential sentence of "confinement for life" should Bergdahl be convicted. Both charges also potentially carry a dishonorable discharge, a reduction in rank to private, and a total forfeiture of all pay and allowances.
"We ask that all Americans continue to withhold judgment until the facts of this case emerge," Bergdahl's attorney, Eugene Fidell, said in a statement. "We also ask that government officials refrain from leaking information or engaging in other conduct that endangers our client's right to a fair trial."
The Army said the case has been referred to a military preliminary hearing akin to a grand jury inquiry, which is "designed to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to merit a court-martial," after which a higher authority will decide to go ahead with a court-martial against Bergdahl or drop the charges, among other options.
President Obama called it a "good day" when Bergdahl was freed, but critics, including some high-ranking Republicans, loudly denounced the deal, likening it to negotiating with terrorists. Also, lawmakers complained that Congress had not been consulted about the exchange, as they said the law requires. The White House defended the deal, saying that rescuing a prisoner of war was "absolutely the right thing to do" and that the deal had to be done secretly and urgently to be successful.