Reuters International

U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is pictured in this undated handout photo provided by the U.S. Army. U.S. Army/Handout via Reuters

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By Greg Lacour

FORT BRAGG, N.C. (Reuters) - A military judge at a hearing on Thursday ordered a four-star U.S. Army general be made available for questioning by Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl’s legal team before the former prisoner of war’s approaching court-martial.

Bergdahl's lawyers are seeking to discover whether unlawful command influence, or UCI, has played a part in the politically- charged proceedings for the trial of Bergdahl, who walked away from his post in Afghanistan in 2009 and became a Taliban prisoner for five years.

The judge, Colonel Jeffery Nance, refused requests from Bergdahl's lawyers to speak with most of the high-ranking officials on the team's list, including four current and former secretaries of defence.

Nance allowed Bergdahl's attorneys to interview General Robert Abrams, commander of Fort Bragg, North Carolina-based United States Army Forces Command.

Abrams has not been formally questioned by the defence team. He ordered Bergdahl’s trial in a decision that came a few months after he assumed the command in August 2015.

"If there is actual or apparent UCI ... then it either exists or doesn’t exist with him,” Nance said. “So (defence attorneys) ought to be able to talk with him and ask him some pointed questions.”

Bergdahl, 30, is facing a court-martial with a potential life sentence on charges of desertion and endangerment of U.S. troops. The court-martial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 6, 2017. Bergdahl is currently deployed at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas.

U.S. military prosecutors have said that Bergdahl sneaked off his post, resulting in a 45-day search that put soldiers' lives at risk and diverted attention from the fight against the Taliban.

Bergdahl was freed in a prisoner swap in May 2014 involving the release of five Taliban leaders held by the United States. The deal drew heavy criticism from Republicans.

Defence attorneys declined afterwards to specify what they intend to ask the general.

“We need to have a substantive conversation with him,” said Eugene Fidell, Bergdahl’s lead civilian lawyer. “He is the birthday boy here, and it’s important that we get an opportunity to talk to him.”

(Reporting by Greg Lacour; Writing by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Leslie Adler)

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