Marine who vanished in Iraq in 2004 found guilty of desertion, sentenced to 2 years in prison

A U.S. Marine who vanished in Iraq in 2004 has been sentenced to two years in prison for leaving his post and then fleeing to Lebanon after a brief return to the U.S.

As part of the sentence handed down Monday, Cpl. Wassef Hassoun will have a reduction in rank, loss of pay and a dishonorable discharge.

He was given two years and five days' confinement.

Marine Maj. Nicholas Martz, the judge in the bench trial of Cpl. Wassef Hassoun, found Hassoun guilty of deserting in Iraq in 2004 and then deserting again in 2005 by fleeing to Lebanon after a brief return to the U.S.

Hassoun was also found guilty of causing the loss of his service pistol.

Prosecutors argued during trial that Hassoun made preparations to flee his base in Fallujah in 2004 and foreshadowed his actions by threatening to leave for Lebanon.

Defense attorneys maintained Hassoun was kidnapped by insurgents in 2004.

The case began when Hassoun vanished from a base in Fallujah in June 2004. Days later, he appeared blindfolded and with a sword poised above his head in a photo purportedly taken by insurgents. An extremist group claimed to be holding him captive.

Not long after that, Hassoun turned up unharmed at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, Lebanon, saying he'd been kidnapped. But officials were suspicious, and he was brought back to Camp Lejeune while the military considered charging him with desertion and counts related to a pistol and Humvee he's accused of taking.

Hassoun's case occupies some of the same murky territory as that of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, a soldier who left his post in Afghanistan and was held by the Taliban for five years.

In a recent interview with The Associated Press, Haytham Faraj, a lawyer for Hassoun, questioned why his client's case was heading to trial when many unauthorized absences are handled administratively.

"To me it doesn't seem very fair," Faraj said.

An expert on military law agreed that most servicemen accused of leaving their post receive administrative punishment. But Philip Cave, a retired Navy lawyer now in private practice, said Hassoun's multiple absences -- including one shortly before he faced a court hearing -- may explain why his case is being handled with a trial.

Hassoun, a native of Lebanon and naturalized American citizen, enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 2002 and served as an Arabic translator.

Prosecutors 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.

Intelligence documents declassified in recent months shed further light on the investigation of Hassoun's kidnapping claim. An NCIS report from August 2004 states that Hassoun's family in Lebanon seemed genuinely distraught after news of his kidnapping surfaced, contacting the U.S. Embassy in tears.

Another report said the family told investigators that a representative of the Hassoun clan, made up of Sunni Muslims, was able to negotiate with insurgents for Hassoun's release. News that he later 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.

Faraj suggested this evidence was either ignored or withheld from prosecutors in 2004.

"Someone at a high-enough level with the proper clearances knew that this man had been abducted, and yet they brought charges forward anyway," Faraj said.

After he was brought back to Camp Lejeune in 2004, Hassoun was allowed to visit family in Utah. With a military court hearing looming, Hassoun disappeared a second time in early 2005. Prosecutors have said his whereabouts were unknown for years.

Hassoun traveled to Lebanon, but was arrested by that country's authorities after Interpol issued a bulletin triggered by his deserter status, Faraj said.

Translated Lebanese government documents reference the U.S. charges against Hassoun. Several memos include Lebanese officials discussing whether to allow extradition to the U.S., and eventually a Lebanese justice ministry document from 2006 states there is "no extradition approval."

The documents submitted by the defense to the U.S. military court say Lebanese authorities took his passport and prevented him from traveling.

The documents say Lebanese court proceedings against Hassoun lasted until 2013, and travel restrictions were later lifted.

After that, Faraj said that Hassoun turned himself in to U.S. authorities. He was brought to Camp Lejeune over the summer.

A general decided to proceed with the trial.

Cave, the former Navy lawyer, said that prosecutors often have to build desertion cases from circumstantial evidence "unless the person walks out the door and says `I'm leaving and I'm never coming back."'

The Associated Press contributed to this report.