March 7, 2014 / 12:06 PM / 6 years ago

Conflicting accounts open U.S. Army general's sex crimes trial

FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - Opening arguments in the military court martial of a U.S. Army general accused of forcibly sodomizing a female captain with whom he had a secret sexual relationship provided sharply conflicting accounts on Friday of the end of the affair.

U.S. Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair leaves the courthouse at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina in this file photo taken March 4, 2014. Sinclair will be accused of forcing a junior officer to perform oral sex, grabbing her genitalia against her will and having intercourse with her in public places when the U.S. government lays out its case against him on Friday. REUTERS/Ellen Ozier/Files

Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair stands accused of forcing the junior officer under his command to perform oral sex, grabbing her genitalia against her will and having intercourse with her in public places.

The rare trial of a high-ranking U.S. military official is unfolding on a base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, amid a growing debate among U.S. lawmakers over how best to curb sexual assault in the military.

“This case is one of abuse of position, abuse of command, abuse of power, abuse of rank,” said lead Army prosecutor Lt. Colonel Robert Stelle on Friday.

Defense attorney Ellen Brotman read excerpts aloud in court from the female captain’s journal and countered that the relationship was consensual from beginning to end.

“You will see that this case is nothing more than a workplace affair,” Brotman said.

The identity of the captain, a military intelligence officer, is being withheld by Reuters due to the nature of the charges. She is expected to take the witness stand on Friday.

The general, a married father of two, faces life in prison if he is found guilty by a panel of five two-star generals of the most serious charge, forcible sodomy.

On Thursday, Sinclair, 51, pleaded guilty to lesser offenses that carry a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison and possible dismissal from the Army.

Sinclair, a one-star general, admitted to having an extramarital affair with the captain 17 years his junior as well as seeking nude photos from other junior female officers and viewing pornography while he was deployed in Afghanistan.

He denies sexually assaulting the captain and says the relationship was consensual, although inappropriate by military standards.

The charges saw him stripped of command in southern Afghanistan in May 2012 and sent back to Fort Bragg, where he remains on active duty.

He was required by the trial judge to provide specifics of his wrongdoing as part of his guilty plea, and more salacious details will likely emerge as the proceedings unfold.

The defense says text messages, some of them sexual in nature, and the captain’s journal entries support Sinclair’s claim that the relationship was consensual and that the captain pursued him.

Earlier, Stelle acknowledged that the sexual relationship was consensual at first, but that Sinclair used his superior rank to force the woman to stay in the relationship and threatened to harm her if she exposed the affair.

“It involves a lot of consensual sex,” Stelle said in opening arguments. “It also involves lives, threats, manipulations and coercion and abuse of position to keep the relationship going.”

Reporting by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Gunna Dickson

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