RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A Marine corporal who was declared a deserter nearly 10 years ago after disappearing in Iraq under mysterious circumstances was held Monday at a North Carolina brig after being apprehended in the Middle East, a spokesman said.
Cpl. Wassef Ali Hassoun, 34, was returned to Camp Lejeune, said Lt. Col. Cliff W. Gilmore of the II Marine Expeditionary Force, the unit Hassoun was assigned to.
Hassoun was in a Middle Eastern country that Gilmore said he couldn’t identify when he contacted U.S. authorities to give himself up. Hassoun was born in Lebanon and is a naturalized American citizen.
Hassoun disappeared from his unit in Iraq in 2004. He soon turned up unharmed in Lebanon and said he’d been kidnapped by Islamic extremists. He disappeared again before facing the military equivalent of a grand jury hearing.
Maj. Gen. Raymond Fox, commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Lejeune, will decide how to adjudicate the case, which could mean a court-martial. The Marines can hold Hassoun for up to four months while Fox waits for prosecutors to recommend charges and makes a decision, Gilmore said.
“In general, if we had somebody where there was pretty strong evidence that something had happened and that there was a risk that the person might leave the area, then we do have some freedom to keep them in confinement for a period of time while we gather the facts,” Gilmore said.
The Hassoun case is unrelated to the matter of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who disappeared from his post in eastern Afghanistan in June 2009 under unexplained circumstances. Members of Bergdahl’s unit have said he walked away on his own and should face desertion charges.
Hassoun enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 2002 and was trained as a motor vehicle operator. He was serving as an Arabic translator at the time of his disappearance in Fallujah in western Iraq in June 2004. Seven days later, a photo of a blindfolded Hassoun with a sword poised above his head turned up on Al-Jazeera television. A group called the National Islamic Resistance/1920 Revolution Brigade claimed to be holding him captive.
Hassoun contacted American officials in Beirut, Lebanon, on July 8, 2004, saying he had been kidnapped. He was returned to Camp Lejeune and charged after an investigation with desertion, loss of government property, theft of a military firearm for allegedly leaving the Fallujah camp with a 9 mm service pistol, and theft of a Humvee.
Hassoun was allowed to visit relatives in West Jordan, Utah, in December 2004 when he disappeared again. A hearing, called an Article 32 proceeding, in January 2005 was canceled when Hassoun failed to return to Camp Lejeune. His commanders then officially classified him as a deserter.
“When he went back into deserter status, that Article 32 investigation was suspended and the charges were withdrawn because we don’t conduct those investigations in absentia,” Gilmore said.
Prosecutors will look back over the evidence and what else has emerged in the past decade before recommending whether Hassoun should face charges, Gilmore said.
Hassoun said in a public statement after his return to the U.S. in 2004 that he had been captured by insurgents in Iraq and was still a loyal Marine.
“I did not desert my post,” he told reporters. “I was captured and held against my will by anti-coalition forces for 19 days. This was a very difficult and challenging time for me.”
AP National Security writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.
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