RALEIGH, North Carolina (AP) — A hearing officer has recommended a court martial for a Marine accused of deserting his unit a decade ago in Iraq and later winding up in Lebanon for eight years, a defense lawyer said Thursday.
Civilian defense attorney Haytham Faraj said the officer overseeing the military equivalent of a grand jury recommended that 34-year-old Cpl. Wassef Hassoun face a general court martial on charges including desertion and theft. A Marine general will have the final say on whether to try Hassoun.
Faraj also gave The Associated Press translated Lebanese government documents that he says illustrate how Hassoun was tied up with court proceedings and prevented from leaving Lebanon. The same documents were given to the military court.
Faraj said the hearing report by Lt. Col. Scott W. Martin notes the case consists mostly of circumstantial evidence and that many witnesses, including some in Iraq, would be hard to find. Still, Martin found that the government had enough evidence to proceed.
“It’s not surprising,” said Faraj, himself a former U.S. Marine. “I think Lt. Col. Martin wrote a fair report.”
A Marine public affairs officer declined to comment on Martin’s report.
The case began in June 2004, when Hassoun disappeared from a base in Fallujah, Iraq. About a week later, he appeared in a photo purportedly taken by insurgents. Hassoun was blindfolded and had a sword poised above his head.
Hassoun, a naturalized American citizen born in Lebanon, turned up days later at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon saying he was kidnapped by extremists.
But the military doubted his story, and he was brought back to the U.S. while charges were considered. He was allowed to visit relatives in Utah in December 2004 when he disappeared again — eventually winding up back in Lebanon.
Military prosecutors argue Hassoun was unhappy with his deployment and left the Marines in Iraq in 2004. They cited witnesses who said Hassoun didn’t like how the U.S. was interrogating Iraqis and that he said he wouldn’t shoot back at Iraqis.
Military officials say a marriage for Hassoun had been arranged with a woman in Lebanon. They are now married and have a son who has dual U.S. and Lebanese citizenship.
Faraj, who maintains the kidnapping story is true, said his client traveled to Lebanon in early 2005 while on leave and was soon arrested.
Faraj argues that court proceedings in Lebanon were triggered by the U.S. charges against Hassoun.
Military and legal experts have said it’s unusual that a foreign country would try someone on desertion or theft charges related to U.S. military service.
Faraj conceded that it’s strange but suggested Lebanese authorities were acting on information from the U.S. government, which has pledged more than $1 billion in aid to that country since 2006.
“I don’t really have an explanation for it,” Faraj said of the court proceedings.
Marine prosecutors say Hassoun’s whereabouts were unknown for eight years. He was returned to the U.S. in 2014 after he contacted officials here.
The 62 pages of translated documents say Hassoun was arrested in 2005 by Lebanese authorities after Interpol issued a bulletin triggered by his status as a deserter. The documents say Lebanese authorities released him but took his passport and prevented him from traveling.
A document from the foreign affairs ministry lists theft and desertion charges and refers to U.S. code of military justice.
“The USA department of Navy asks the seizure of all documents and possessions that are with the escaped soldier,” states the March 2005 memo.
Several memos include Lebanese officials discussing whether to allow extradition.
Eventually, a Lebanese justice ministry document from 2006 states there is “no extradition approval.”
“Lebanese court has the right to trial and judge him,” it says.
A judgment from Lebanese military court dated in April 2013 states Hassoun was fined for theft of military tools. A Lebanese document months later indicates travel restrictions against him were lifted.
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By JONATHAN DREW, Associated Press