The criminal case against a U.S.-Lebanese Marine accused of deserting his unit in Iraq a decade ago began taking shape when Navy criminal investigators assumed the worst about the corporal based on hearsay from other service members, a defense attorney argued Thursday.
Prosecutors countered in their own opening statements that Cpl. Wassef Hassoun burned personal items and withdrew money before he disappeared from a base in Iraq in 2004; avoided some duties; and was unhappy he couldn’t join the woman with whom he’d entered an arranged marriage.
They displayed quotes attributed to Hassoun before his disappearance: “I’ll leave and go to Lebanon. I’m not kidding.”
Hassoun is charged with desertion, larceny and destruction of government property. If convicted of all counts at the bench trial before a military judge, he faces a maximum of 27 years in prison.
Defense attorney Haytham Faraj acknowledged Hassoun talked about being unhappy and wanting to leave the Marines, but said many Marines make similar comments. He said prosecutors have no evidence that Hassoun fled his post in 2004. Prosecutors have acknowledged their case is circumstantial.
Faraj said the “rush to judgment” by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was “worthy of a novel, a spy novel.”
After Hassoun disappeared in Fallujah in 2004, the defense attorney said, suspicious comrades told investigators about comments Hassoun made about the conflict between his native Lebanon and Israel. Soon, Faraj said, NCIS investigators were scrutinizing Hassoun’s relatives, “hoping to hit a jackpot” by tying them to a terror group.
“What they find out in the end is it’s just an American family with different names and a little browner skin,” Faraj said.
Days after his 2004 disappearance, Hassoun 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 Awkar 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 Beirut authorities after Interpol issued a bulletin related to his deserter status, Faraj said. The defense says court proceedings in Lebanon lasted until 2013, and Hassoun turned himself in to U.S. authorities after the government there lifted travel restrictions.