FORT DIX, N.J. -- A military judge yesterday convicted an Army private who fled his West German post for the Soviet Union on a charge of being absent without leave, rejecting the more serious charge of desertion.

Pfc. Wade E. Roberts received a bad-conduct discharge and was stripped of his military benefits, but avoided imprisonment. He could have faced one year of hard labor on the AWOL conviction.

The prosecutor, Capt. Daniel Shaver, said he was shocked by the sentence and had expected Roberts to serve prison time.

Roberts fled his base at Giessen, West Germany, on Feb. 28 and traveled with his girlfriend, Petra Neumann, to the Soviet Union. He returned to West Germany on Nov. 4, and was arrested the following day.

Roberts testified that he returned to the West from his eight-month self-imposed exile to the Soviet Union because he and his pregnant girlfriend became disenchanted with communism and feared being trapped there.

"I wanted to get out of the country," Roberts said. "We didn't like it."

The Riverside, Calif., man told the court that he and his girlfriend, whom he later wed, disliked their work at a Soviet snake lab. He also said he feared that if his son were born there, he would be granted Soviet citizenship.