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Dec 3, 12:31 PM EST

Bergdahl seeks pardon from Obama to avert desertion trial


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the former prisoner of war who's accused of endangering comrades by walking off his post in Afghanistan, is asking President Barack Obama to pardon him before leaving office.

White House and Justice Department officials on Saturday said Bergdahl had submitted copies of the clemency request seeking leniency. If granted by Obama, it would allow Bergdahl to avert a court-martial trial scheduled for April where he faces charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy, the latter of which carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Bergdahl, of Hailey, Idaho, walked off his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and was held captive by the Taliban and its allies for five years. The Obama administration's decision in May 2014 to exchange him for five Taliban prisoners being held at the U.S prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, touched off a firestorm of criticism, with some Republicans accusing Obama of jeopardizing the safety of a nation for a deserter. Lawmakers expressed outrage that the Obama administration did not give Congress a 30-day notice about transferring the detainees to Qatar, as required by law.

President-elect Donald Trump was particularly critical of the prisoner deal during the presidential campaign, describing Bergdahl as a "no-good traitor, who should have been executed." Trump has at times held up an imaginary rifle as if he were taking aim at Bergdahl and declared at a Las Vegas rally in October that "30 years ago, he would have been shot."

Bergdahl's lead defense lawyer, Eugene Fidell, declined to comment Saturday. Fidell previously described Trump's comments as prejudicial, threatening "my client's right to a fair trial."

Bergdahl's disappearance and the possibility that he might face light punishment angered many in the military, given that his fellow soldiers took considerable risks to search for him. Bergdahl has said he walked off his post because he wanted to cause an alarm and draw attention to what he saw as problems with his unit.

His request to Obama was confirmed by White House and Justice Department officials who were not authorized to discuss the matter by name.

The New York Times first reported Bergdahl's request for a pardon.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Hope Yen in Washington contributed to this report.

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