RALEIGH, N.C. – Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl says he was tortured repeatedly in the five years he was held captive by the Taliban: beaten with a copper cable, chained spread-eagle to a bed, and threatened with execution after trying to escape.
Bergdahl, 28, described this harsh treatment in Afghanistan in a note his lawyer released Thursday after sharing it with the Army in an attempt to avert a court martial.
The Army charged Bergdahl nevertheless with desertion and misbehavior before the enemy for leaving his post in June 2009. He was freed last year in exchange for five Taliban commanders held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Now he faces up to life in prison if convicted of the criminal charges.
Bergdahl says he tried about a dozen times to escape, and that his captors’ response was brutal.
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“In the beginning of my captivity, after my first two escape attempts, for about three months I was chained to a bed spread-eagle and blindfolded,” Bergdahl wrote. “Around my ankles where the chains were, I developed open wounds. … During these months some of the things they did was beat the bottoms of my feet and parts of my body with a copper cable.”
He also says he was beaten with a rubber hose, fists and hit with the butt of an AK-47, so hard the rifle’s stock broke off. He was repeatedly threatened with execution, and “kept in constant isolation during the entire 5 years,” much of the time in a small cage in dark rooms, chained to a heavy object. When he was finally set free, he could hardly walk.
Eugene Fidell, one of Bergdahl’s lawyers, said this suffering should be considered when weighing any punishment.
Bergdahl next faces an Article 32 hearing, where a high-ranking officer known as the “convening authority” will decide if there is enough evidence to recommend the case to a court martial.
“This is a hellish environment he was kept in for nearly 5 years, particularly after he did his duty in trying to escape,” Fidell, a former military lawyer now in private practice, told The Associated Press on Thursday. “There is no question in my mind that a convening authority would not be doing his or her duty without taking into account the circumstances under which Sgt. Berhdahl was held.”
Bergdahl’s two-page description of his captivity was attached to a letter Fidell sent March 2 to Gen. Mark Milley, who runs the U.S. Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg and was responsible for deciding any criminal charges.
Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban shortly after leaving his post in June 2009, and held by members of the Haqqani network, an insurgent group tied to the Taliban that operates both in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Before disappearing, Bergdahl had expressed misgivings about the U.S. role in the war – as well as his own.
Fidell cited an Army investigation that determined Bergdahl left his post but not the Army, and that his “specific intent was to bring what he thought were disturbing circumstances to the attention of the nearest general officer.”
Fidell argued that given his harsh captivity, the reason he left his unit and his attempts to escape while prisoner, “it would be unduly harsh to impose on him the lifetime stigma of a court-martial conviction or an Other Than Honorable discharge and to deny him veteran’s benefits.”
That argument apparently fell flat: The desertion charge carries up to five years in prison, while “misbehavior before the enemy” carries a life sentence; A conviction on either could strip him of his rank and pay and earn him a dishonorable discharge.
The misbehavior charge is rare and typically reserved for shameful or cowardly conduct, said Daniel Conway, a military defense lawyer and the author of a forthcoming book on military crimes.
The case against Bergdahl has been highly politicized, with members of Congress demanding he be sent to prison. Wednesday’s charges prompted fresh criticism of President Barack Obama.
“President Obama endangered our national security and broke the law when he chose to negotiate with terrorists and release hardened enemy combatants from Guantanamo Bay in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl – who many believed at the time was a deserter,” said U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas and the chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security.
Even some members of Bergdahl’s former Army unit have called for serious punishment, saying others risked their lives searching for him, although the Pentagon says there’s no evidence anyone died because of his actions.
“The military’s obviously a very rough job. … But everybody else stayed with the oath and did what they signed up to do. And as a result of that, some didn’t get to come home,” said Cody Full, 26, who served in Bergdahl’s platoon. He said Bergdahl should be stripped of his pay and benefits and be dishonorably discharged.
The Obama administration is standing by the prisoner swap.
“Was it worth it? Absolutely. We have a commitment to our men and women serving overseas, or in our military, defending our national security every day, that we will do everything we can to bring them home, and that’s what we did in this case,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told Fox News.
Bergdahl still needs “continuous physical therapy, medical and behavioral health appointments” at the Army medical center at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, where he has been assigned to a desk job. Even in Texas, he faces “hostility” that raises doubts about a fair trial, Fidell wrote: Two officers accompany him wherever he goes off base, not to keep him from escaping but to protect him from others.