CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. -- The criminal case against a Marine accused of deserting his unit in Iraq a decade ago began taking shape when Navy criminal investigators assumed the worst about the Muslim 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 Beirut, Lebanon, 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, 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.
Faraj said Hassoun went to Lebanon because he needed to meet with his father-in-law to discuss a divorce from his wife in the U.S. The divorce never happened.
The defense conceded Hassoun's travel to Lebanon in early 2005 constituted an unauthorized absence and he has pleaded guilty to that lesser offense. Prosecutors, however, are still pursuing the more serious desertion charges.
Hassoun spoke briefly in court Thursday. Under questioning from the judge, Hassoun said his movements in Lebanon were restricted within days of his arrival in January 2005. He said he couldn't leave because, "I would be detained or arrested and questioned by the regime."
Prosecutor Capt. Chris Nassar said Hassoun was an interpreter for intelligence teams seeking information from local Iraqis. Prosecutors argued that Hassoun's dissatisfaction grew when his plans for a wedding were postponed by training in the U.S. and a second deployment to Iraq.
Between 2003 and 2004 deployments to Iraq, Hassoun and his wife were married over the phone using power of attorney, Nassar said.
During that second deployment, Hassoun was just feet away from a superior who was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade.
Soon, Hassoun's attitude and work suffered, so his team began relying more on another translator. He also began refusing to translate when religion was used as leverage during questioning.
Eventually, Nassar said, Hassoun made good on his comments about leaving and fled the base: "He did exactly what he said he was going to do."