Marine who vanished in Iraq in '04 found guilty of desertion

AP News
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Posted: Feb 23, 2015 3:53 PM
Marine who vanished in Iraq in '04 found guilty of desertion

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A U.S. Marine who vanished a decade ago in Iraq was convicted Monday of desertion for leaving his post there and then fleeing to Lebanon after a brief return to the U.S.

The judge at Camp Lejeune, Marine Maj. Nicholas Martz, ruled in a bench trial that Cpl. Wassef Hassoun was guilty of deserting for the 2004 and 2005 disappearances. Hassoun was also convicted of causing the loss of his service pistol.

A sentencing hearing was expected to begin Monday afternoon. A spokesman for the U.S. Marines, Capt. Stewart Coles, said in a release that Hassoun faces a maximum penalty of 7 ½ years in prison, reduction in rank, loss of pay and a dishonorable discharge.

While the judge determined Hassoun intentionally fled during the two disappearances at the heart of the case, his ruling leaves the defendant facing a less severe punishment than he did at the trial's outset. Had Hassoun been convicted of all charges and specifications, he could have been sentenced to a maximum of 27 years in prison.

His loss of the pistol could have resulted in a more severe offense under the military's destruction of property law, and he was found not guilty of a separate theft charge related to the pistol. Hassoun was also found not guilty on one of three specifications related to the desertion charge.

Phillip Cave, a retired Navy lawyer now in private practice, said he's most interested in seeing what sentence Hassoun gets: "The real issue in this case is how much time he spends in the brig."

Cave said he's seen similar cases result in sentences of one to three years, but sometimes circumstances can drive a sentence higher. At this point, anything less than a year and a half would be favorable to Hassoun, he said.

"On the defense side of things, you have to redefine your sense of victory sometimes," he said.

Hassoun's case occupied some of the same murky territory as that of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who left his post in Afghanistan and was held by the Taliban for five years. The Army is considering what, if any, charges or punishment Bergdahl should face. The two cases have no direct bearing on each other because they are in different military branches.

Hassoun's case began when he went missing from a base in Fallujah in June 2004. Days later, he appeared blindfolded and with a sword held above his head in an image purportedly taken by insurgents. An extremist group claimed to be holding him captive.

But Hassoun soon turned up unharmed at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, saying he'd been kidnapped. Officials were suspicious, and he was returned to Camp Lejeune in 2004 while the military considered charging him.

After his return, Hassoun was allowed to visit family in Utah but disappeared a second time in early 2005. Hassoun traveled to Lebanon but was detained by that country's authorities after Interpol issued a bulletin related to his deserter status, defense attorney Haytham Faraj said. The defense said court proceedings in Lebanon lasted until 2013, and Hassoun turned himself in to U.S. authorities after the government there lifted travel restrictions.

Prosecutors argued during trial that Hassoun made preparations to flee his base in Fallujah in 2004 and told others that he planned to leave. They displayed quotes during opening statements attributed to Hassoun: "I'll leave and go to Lebanon. I'm not kidding."

They said he was unhappy with how U.S. servicemen treated Iraqis during interrogations and that he was upset that training and a deployment kept him apart from the woman with whom he'd entered an arranged marriage.

Defense attorneys maintain Hassoun was kidnapped by insurgents in 2004, and they argued the military had no direct evidence that Hassoun purposely left the base. Faraj said the case against the Muslim serviceman began with "a rush to judgment that's worthy of a novel" after suspicious comrades told investigators about comments Hassoun made about the conflict between his native Lebanon and Israel.