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US general spared prison in sexual misconduct case

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Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who admitted to inappropriate relationships with three subordinates, arrives at the courthouse for sentencing at Fort Bragg, N.C., Thursday, March 20, 2014. Sinclair was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay Thursday, avoiding jail time in one of the U.S. military’s most closely watched courts-martial.(AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who admitted to inappropriate relationships with three subordinates, arrives at the courthouse for sentencing at Fort Bragg, N.C., Thursday, March 20, 2014. Sinclair was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay Thursday, avoiding jail time in one of the U.S. military’s most closely watched courts-martial.(AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, left, who admitted to inappropriate relationships with three subordinates, arrives at the courthouse with attorney Ellen Brotman, right, for sentencing at Fort Bragg, N.C., Thursday, March 20, 2014. Sinclair was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay Thursday, avoiding jail time in one of the U.S. military’s most closely watched courts-martial.(AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, right, who admitted to inappropriate relationships with three subordinates, arrives at the courthouse with attorney Richard Scheff for sentencing Fort Bragg, N.C., Thursday, March 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, center, who admitted to inappropriate relationships with three subordinates, leaves the courthouse after being sentenced at Fort Bragg, N.C., Thursday, March 20, 2014. Attorneys Ellen Brotman, right, and Maj. Sean Foster, along with Josh Zeitz, left, who handled Public Relations for the defense, are by his side. Sinclair was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay Thursday, avoiding jail time in one of the U.S. military’s most closely watched courts-martial. (AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, left, who admitted to inappropriate relationships with three subordinates, arrives at the courthouse for sentencing at Fort Bragg, N.C., Thursday, March 20, 2014 with attorney Ellen Brotman. Sinclair was reprimanded and docked $20,000 in pay Thursday, avoiding jail time in one of the U.S. military’s most closely watched courts-martial. (AP Photo/Ellen Ozier)

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. (AP) — The Army general at the center of a sexual misconduct case that put the military justice system itself on trial was spared prison Thursday and sentenced to a reprimand and a $20,000 fine — a punishment legal experts, a women’s group and members of Congress condemned as shockingly light.

Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, 51, immediately announced his retirement, capping a humiliating fall for the battle-tested commander once regarded as a rising star in the Army. A disciplinary board could still bust him in rank and severely reduce his pension.

“The system worked. I’ve always been proud of my Army,” Sinclair said outside court after reacting to his sentence with a smile and an embrace for his lawyers. “All I want to do now is go north and hug my kids and my wife.”

The former deputy commander of the storied 82nd Airborne Division was originally brought up on sexual assault charges punishable by life in prison. He was believed to be the highest-ranking U.S. military officer ever court-martialed on such charges.

But earlier this week, prosecutors dropped those charges in a deal in which Sinclair pleaded guilty to adultery with one woman and conducting inappropriate relationships with two others by asking them for nude pictures and exchanging sexually explicit email. Adultery is a crime in the military.

The case unfolded with the Pentagon under heavy pressure to confront what it has called an epidemic of rape and other sexual misconduct in the military.

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., called the sentence “laughable.”

“Even when the world is watching, the military has demonstrated their incompetence at meting out justice,” Speier said in a statement. “This is another sordid example of how truly broken the military justice system is. This sentence is a mockery of military justice, a slap on the wrist nowhere close to being proportional to Sinclair’s offenses.”

While the charges against Sinclair carried a maximum of more than 20 years in prison, the plea bargain worked out by the defense and military prosecutors called for no more than 18 months.

The judge, Col. James Pohl, did not explain how he arrived at the much lighter sentence.

Prosecutors had no immediate comment.

Under the sexual assault charges, Sinclair was accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oral sex and threatening to kill her if she told anyone about their three-year affair in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But the case started to crumble as questions arose about her credibility and whether military officials improperly pressed ahead with a trial because of political considerations — namely, a desire to show the Army’s resolve to combat sexual misconduct.

Retired Rear Adm. Jamie Barnett, a Washington lawyer who helped represent the female captain, said the woman was disappointed with the sentence. Barnett called it a “slap on the wrist.”

“A sentence doesn’t take away any of the pain and anguish that she has endured,” Barnett said.

The Associated Press generally does not identify those who say they were sexually assaulted.

Experts in military law agreed the sentence was lenient.

“I can’t believe it,” said retired Lt. Col. Gary D. Solis, a former military judge who now teaches law at West Point and Georgetown University. Solis said Sinclair “is an individual who should not be a general officer. He should have gone to jail and dismissed from the Army.”

Sinclair will now go before Fort Bragg commander Maj. Gen. Clarence K.K. Chinn, who approved Sinclair’s plea bargain, and will get either an oral or written reprimand.

If Sinclair had not announced his retirement, an Army disciplinary board would have almost certainly forced him into it.

Now the board will decide whether to demote him, which could cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars in benefits during his retirement. Sinclair made about $145,000 a year in base pay.

Prosecutors had argued that the judge should throw Sinclair out of the Army and strip him of his benefits, while the defense said that would harm his wife and their two sons the most. Prosecutors did

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