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By Kelly Twedell
FORT BRAGG, N.C., March 20 (Reuters) - A U.S. Army general who had faced possible life in prison on sexual assault charges was reprimanded by a judge on Thursday and ordered to forfeit $20,000 in pay for mistreating a captain during one of several improper relationships with junior female officers.
Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair avoided jail time or dismissal from the Army for military crimes that were aired in a rare court-martial of a top officer.
He admitted to various offenses this week in a plea deal that dropped the sexual assault charges involving the female captain, who said Sinclair forced her to perform oral sex when she tried to break off their illicit liaison.
The one-star general and his defense team said they were stunned by the sentence.
"The system has worked," Sinclair said after court in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. "All I want to do now is hug my kids and be with my wife."
He plans to submit his retirement paperwork and could still be demoted by the Army as part of that process, his attorneys said.
"He's got new mountains to climb," said lead defense attorney Richard Scheff.
Sinclair, 51, pleaded guilty to having inappropriate relationships with junior female officers, possessing pornography on his laptop while deployed in Afghanistan, misusing his government credit card to visit his mistress and using derogatory language to refer to female officers.
His case drew wide attention at a time when the U.S. military faces intense political scrutiny as it works to curb sexual misconduct in the ranks.
Government prosecutors on Wednesday had asked the trial judge, Colonel James Pohl, to dismiss Sinclair from the Army for the harm caused by his criminal acts. They said he abused his power to exploit women.
The defense team said Sinclair should be allowed to retire at a reduced rank given testimony about his otherwise stellar military record and 27 years of service. (Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Stephen Powell, James Dalgleish and Tom Brown)