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Marine Is Charged With Desertion in Iraq Disappearance

Corporal Reappeared 19 Days Later

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page A19

The Lebanese-born U.S. Marine who disappeared from his post in Iraq for nearly three weeks this summer before reappearing in Lebanon, saying he had been captured by enemy fighters, was charged with desertion yesterday.

The Marine Corps charged Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, 24, of West Jordan, Utah, after a five-month investigation into his June 19 disappearance from a U.S. military camp near Fallujah. Hassoun was also charged with theft of a military firearm for allegedly leaving the camp with his 9mm service pistol, and with theft and wrongful appropriation of a government vehicle.

Marine Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun says he was captured by enemy fighters in Iraq and held against his will. (Jason W. Fudge -- Marine Corps Via AP)

A commissioned officer will consider the charges in a pretrial investigation, and a hearing is expected in the case by early January, said Maj. Matthew W. Morgan, a spokesman for the 4th Marine Expeditionary Brigade at Camp Lejeune, N.C. Hassoun will be assigned a military defense counsel to represent him, or he may hire a civilian lawyer at his own expense.

"The military justice system is based on the same thing as the civil justice system, and that's the presumption of innocence," Morgan said in a telephone interview. "So he's going to be treated as innocent until otherwise proven guilty. This will move forward. This is all going to happen in public. All of this evidence is going to be publicly vetted."

Hassoun, who served as an Arabic translator in Iraq, could not be reached for comment yesterday; neither could his immediate family members. He has denied deserting, asserting that he was captured by anti-U.S. forces and held against his will for 19 days.

"I did not desert my post," Hassoun told reporters in July. He added: "This was a very difficult and challenging time for me. "

The Marine has not been confined and continues to carry out his normal duties as a truck driver at Camp Lejeune, Morgan said.

Hassoun's story has attracted international attention.

After his disappearance, he was initially thought to have deserted his post. Pentagon officials classified him as captured after a videotape surfaced on an Islamic extremist Web site showing the Marine blindfolded with a large knife positioned over his head.

Statements posted on two Islamic Web sites proclaimed that he had been beheaded. An extremist group said later that it released Hassoun after securing his promise that he would not rejoin U.S. forces to fight. Hassoun turned up at the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon on July 8. His mother and father, one of his brothers and his new Lebanese wife joined him at the embassy in the Akwar neighborhood, family members said at the time.

Hassoun was transferred to Germany for medical exams. He was later sent back to the United States in a standard repatriation process at Marine Corps Base Quantico and was eventually stationed at Camp Lejeune.

His case is handled by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which has collected hundreds of statements from U.S. service members and foreign nationals. After the pretrial investigation, the investigating officer may recommend a trial by court-martial, or he could recommend that the charges be dismissed or referred for nonjudicial punishment, officials said.

If found guilty of the charges, Hassoun would face a possible dishonorable discharge and as much as 15 years in prison, officials said. Morgan said desertion during a time of war can be punishable by death, but "the Marine Corps has absolutely no intention of going in that direction."

Morgan said he did not know how many service members have been charged with desertion since the start of the Iraq war last year. "It is rare," Morgan said. "However, specific numbers are not something we have been able to track down as of yet."

Hassoun was raised in Lebanon and attended American schools there until he moved to the United States in 1999. He lived with his brothers in Utah for two years and joined the Marines in 2001. Hassoun had been married to an American, but they divorced. His family has said that he married his new wife, a cousin, by proxy earlier this year. His father signed the marriage contract for him, under Islamic law, his family has said.

After his ordeal, Hassoun's presence in Lebanon sparked local tensions in his family home in Tripoli, about 50 miles north of Beirut. A long-standing dispute erupted in a gunfight in July after one man told a member of the Hassoun clan that he came from a family of traitors who collaborate with Americans. Two people were killed.

The family's appeals for Hassoun's release had included efforts to establish their credibility as devout Muslims. Family friends in Lebanon had sought help from Lebanon's Jamaa Islamiya, an Islamic group associated with Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood.

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