RALEIGH, North Carolina — Prosecutors could have a difficult time proving the desertion case against a Lebanese-born U.S. Marine who vanished from his unit in Iraq a decade ago, according to a military report.
The government has a circumstantial case and could have a hard time finding witnesses to testify against 34-year-old Cpl. Wassef Hassoun because the case is so old and many witnesses were Iraqis, the officer who presided over the military equivalent of a grand jury noted in the report.
Hassoun's attorney cites the difficulty in producing witnesses in his request this week for another chance to dissuade the Marines from taking the case to trial. Late last month, Maj. Gen. William D. Beydler referred Hassoun to a court-martial on charges of desertion, larceny and destruction of government property.
Defense attorney Haytham Faraj argued that more witnesses should have testified at the Article 32 hearing and that unsworn statements from witnesses improperly influenced the decision to go to a court-martial. Faraj also said he didn't receive evidence that could help his client until weeks after the hearing.
The officer who presided over the Article 32 hearing said the government faces a significant hurdle in finding Iraqi natives and contractors from a decade ago. In Iraq, Hassoun had been part of a team to develop intelligence by interacting with Iraqis who worked on the base.
"Mr. Faraj is absolutely right -- if trial counsel is unable to track down and produce the witnesses in this case, the government stands little chance of meeting its burden at trial. The government's case hinges upon the appearance and credibility of the witnesses," Martin wrote in the Sept. 10 report.
It was provided to The Associated Press by the defense. Hassoun is being held at Camp Lejeune.
Martin noted that an NCIS agent who testified at the Article 32 acknowledged that "many if not most of the non-U.S. witnesses in this case will not be reachable by the government."
Still, Martin said it's up to him to determine whether the charges have merit — not determine guilt or innocence. Martin also wrote that he didn't consider the unsworn statements.
A Marines spokesman declined to comment on Tuesday.
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 who was born and grew up in Lebanon, turned up days later at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon, saying he was kidnapped by extremists.
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.
Military prosecutors argue Hassoun was unhappy with his deployment and left the Marines. 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.
After vanishing from the U.S., Hassoun traveled to Lebanon in early 2005 and was soon arrested by Lebanese authorities. Faraj argues that court proceedings in Lebanon were triggered by the desertion accusations and prevented him from leaving for eight years.
Faraj also said that he received new evidence after the Article 32 hearing, including hundreds of pages from investigators that shed light on Hassoun's initial disappearance and kidnapping. An NCIS report from August 2004 states that Hassoun's family in Lebanon contacted the U.S. Embassy in tears after reports of his kidnapping surfaced in the news.
A subsequent report from that month said a representative of the Hassoun clan, which is made up of Sunni Muslims, was able to negotiate with insurgents to earn his release. News that he had returned to the U.S. Embassy in Beirut "sparked a wave of violence and retribution against the Hassoun clan" in Tripoli, Lebanon, a military investigator wrote at the time.