CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — A debate over classified evidence could delay the trial of a Marine accused of deserting his unit in Iraq a decade ago and later winding up in Lebanon.
Lawyers spent Tuesday with the judge in a closed session debating how to treat certain classified information in the trial of Cpl. Wassef Hassoun. Opening statements had been expected to begin, but the judge is giving prosecutors until Friday to consider an appeal.
The investigation of Hassoun's disappearances involved intelligence officers, diplomats and military investigators dealing with sensitive information.
Prosecutors indicated Monday that information from two witnesses was classified, while the defense questioned that assertion. The bulk of the arguments were held behind closed doors.
The judge's ruling was not disclosed, but prosecutors said they may appeal, indicating the defense succeeded.
During a brief open session at the end of the day, defense attorney Haytham Faraj speculated that an appeal would be intended to delay the trial long enough to force the seating of a different judge.
Faraj and the judge, Marine Maj. Nicholas Martz, both served as Marine lawyers at Camp Pendleton in California years ago. The men said they knew each other professionally but didn't socialize. Under questioning from prosecutors, Martz also said he may get a different assignment soon.
Hassoun chose Monday to have his case decided before Martz, instead of a jury. The unexpected move happened as the court prepared for the arrival of potential jurors.
"It appears to me that trial counsel and their supervisors are unhappy" with the choice of a bench trial, Faraj said Tuesday. "I am left with only one conclusion: The intent is to delay the trial long enough to get a different judge."
Defense attorneys maintain Hassoun was kidnapped in 2004 by insurgents and later became tangled up in Lebanese courts. Prosecutors allege Hassoun fled his post because he was unhappy with his deployment and the treatment of Iraqis by U.S. troops.
Hassoun, a 35-year-old native of Lebanon and a naturalized American citizen, faces a maximum sentence of 27 years in prison if convicted of all charges, prosecutors said.
Hassoun's case began in June 2004, when he disappeared from base in Fallujah. Days later, he appeared blindfolded and with a sword poised above his head in an image 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 in 2004 while the military considered charging him.
After his return, Hassoun was allowed to visit family in Utah. With a military court hearing looming, Hassoun disappeared a second time in early 2005. Hassoun traveled to Lebanon but was arrested by that country's authorities after Interpol issued a bulletin triggered by his deserter status, Faraj said. The defense says court proceedings in Lebanon lasted until 2013, and Hassoun turned himself in after the government there lifted travel restrictions.