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Judge to weigh U.S. Army deserter Bergdahl's punishment at hearing

By Greg Lacour

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Reuters) - The military judge deciding U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl's fate for leaving his post in Afghanistan in 2009 is expected to hear testimony starting on Wednesday about his five years in captivity and the service members injured while searching for him.

Bergdahl, 31, faces up to life in prison and a dishonorable discharge after pleading guilty last week to desertion and misbehavior before the enemy that endangered U.S. troops. He has no sentence agreement with prosecutors, leaving his punishment up to the judge. [L2N1MR0G6]

Statements by President Donald Trump loom over the case. The soldier's defense attorneys say the Republican, who as a candidate repeatedly referred to Bergdahl as a "no-good traitor," has unlawfully influenced the proceedings.

They argued on Monday at North Carolina's Fort Bragg that Bergdahl should be spared prison time to maintain the integrity of the military justice system.

Army Colonel Jeffery Nance, the judge, did not immediately rule but said recent comments by Trump carried greater weight now that he was president and commander in chief of the U.S. military. [L2N1MY0GX]

Bergdahl said in court last week that he walked off his combat outpost in Paktika province to report "critical problems" in his chain of command. He was captured by the Taliban within hours and spent the next five years suffering torture, abuse and neglect in captivity.

The judge is allowing evidence about service members injured during the search for Bergdahl.

Republicans criticized the Taliban prisoner swap that secured the Idaho native's release in 2014 under Democratic President Barack Obama.

Nance previously ruled that Trump's comments about Bergdahl during the presidential campaign were "disturbing" but did not warrant a dismissal of the case.

The defense again asked him to consider a remedy after Trump said at a news conference last week that he could not talk about the case, then added: "But I think people have heard my comments in the past."

Nance said he trusted the public would take Trump's earlier comments about Bergdahl as campaign rhetoric meant to discredit a political opponent.

"The government would argue that it still is," Major Justin Oshana, a prosecutor, said.

"What political opponent is he trying to embarrass with his statement in the Rose Garden?" Nance asked.

In a statement last week, the White House said the president expected those involved in military court cases to use independent judgment. It did not mention Bergdahl by name.

The sentencing hearing is expected to last several days.

(Additional reporting and writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Peter Cooney)