By Kelly Twedell
FORT BRAGG, North Carolina (Reuters) - Army Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair's court-martial on a sexual assault charge that could send him to prison for life gets underway on Tuesday, one of the few such proceedings against a top U.S. military officer in recent decades.
Sinclair, 51, is accused of twice forcing oral sex during a three-year extramarital affair he admitted to having with a junior female officer, including during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
The allegations saw him removed from his command in Afghanistan in 2012 and sent home to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where the closely watched trial will be held.
The court-martial takes place as the Department of Defense has struggled to deal with a spate of high-profile cases of sexual assault, including some involving personnel charged with combating the crime.
President Barack Obama has ordered military leaders to review the problem, which came into sharp focus after an annual Pentagon study released in May 2013 estimated that incidents of unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
In addition to the most serious charge of forcible sodomy against Sinclair, prosecutors accuse him of seeking nude photos from several other female soldiers and possessing pornography while deployed.
Sinclair, who has served five combat tours during his almost 30-year Army career, denies ever engaging in non consensual sex and says he never threatened to harm his mistress if she exposed the affair or used his rank to coerce subordinates.
His defense team argues text messages show that a loving relationship between the general and the now 34-year-old Army captain fractured when she became jealous of his interactions with his wife and another female soldier.
Lead defense attorney Richard Scheff said military leaders under pressure to curb sexual violence in the armed forces have unfairly targeted Sinclair, ignoring weak evidence and questions about the key accuser's credibility.
The proceedings on Tuesday are expected to include argument on a motion by Sinclair's lawyers to dismiss all charges because they say top military leaders have improperly injected themselves into the case.
"There's no person who has looked at the facts of this case who has concluded that politics isn't driving the ship here," said Scheff, chairman of the Montgomery McCracken law firm in Philadelphia. "It's really troubling."
Military prosecutors declined to comment ahead of the trial, where a panel of five generals with higher rank than Sinclair will sit as jurors.
Sinclair's wife Rebecca spoke out early in the case about the toll recent wars had taken on military marriages, but she will not attend the trial, Scheff said, noting, "It's a painful thing for her."
(Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Scott Malone and Sofina Mirza-Reid)