Trial starts for Marine charged with abusing recruits

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

A court-martial is set to begin Tuesday for a former Marine drill instructor facing charges related to allegedly abusing two Muslim recruits including Raheel Siddiqui of Taylor, who fell to his death at Parris Island in South Carolina last year.

Gunnery Sgt. Joseph A. Felix’s trial is the first public prosecution by the Marines involving the case of Siddiqui, who was 20 and less than two weeks into boot camp when he died following a reported altercation with Felix in their squad barracks.

Felix is not charged in Siddiqui’s death, which was ruled a suicide. Felix is accused of violations of military code including cruelty and maltreatment, failure to obey orders, making false official statements, drunk and disorderly conduct, and obstruction of justice.

Felix was also allegedly involved in a 2015 incident in which drill instructors forced another Muslim recruit into a commercial clothes dryer and turned it on, while interrogating the recruit about his religion, according to a 2016 report by Marine investigators.

Felix has pleaded not guilty, according to the military court at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where he’s being tried at a general court-martial – the highest level of court-martial reserved for the most serious offenses.

Prosecutors are expected to begin presenting their case Tuesday, and the trial could last two weeks. Felix will be judged by a jury made up of both military officers and enlisted service members.

Defense lawyers for Felix made a motion in late July to preclude any discussion or presentation of Siddiqui’s death during the trial, according to Capt. Joshua Pena, a spokesman for the Marine Training and Education Command.

Prosecutors opposed the motion. The judge ruled that Siddiqui’s death would likely be relevant to the trial, and the parties will be permitted to present evidence of the fact that he’s dead, Pena said.

The trial follows a series of Marine Corps investigations a year ago that uncovered systemic hazing and abuse of recruits within the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion at Parris Island.

The Marines next year plan to try the former commander of the 3rd Battalion on charges including failure to ensure Felix was not supervising recruits while he was under investigation for his role in the 2015 clothes dryer incident.

Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon was relieved of his command a week after Siddiqui’s death. Marine Corps officials have said the decision to fire Kissoon was related to prior allegations and was made before Siddiqui died. Kissoon’s court-martial is scheduled for March 12 in Quantico, Virginia.

A military probe into Siddiqui’s death found that, on the day he died, Siddiqui had complained of being ill with a painfully sore throat and had requested to go to the medical center.

Felix accused Siddiqui of faking it and disciplined him by forcing him to run back and forth across the barracks squad bay until he fell or collapsed to the floor, clutching his throat.

Witnesses told investigators that Felix bent down and slapped Siddiqui’s face. Siddiqui then stood, holding his face, turned and ran out a door leading to a stairwell and “vaulted” over the railing, the investigation reported.

His foot caught the railing, and he seemed to trip or tumble over, falling more than 38 feet to the concrete below — his chest striking on a steel handrail. He was pronounced dead several hours later.

An autopsy determined that Siddiqui died of blunt force trauma to the head, neck and torso from the fall. A handwritten note complaining of his sore throat was found in the front left pocket of his pants.

Marine investigators later concluded that “maltreatment” by Siddiqui’s drill instructor team was one of several factors contributing to his death.

Marine officials categorized the death as a suicide, though Siddiqui’s family has disputed the ruling.

His parents, Ghazala and Masood Siddiqui, sued the Marine Corps for $100 million this month, claiming their son was assaulted, hazed and discriminated against because of his Islamic faith, and that military officials were negligent in failing to protect him.

The family’s attorney, Shiraz Khan, has said Felix should be facing more serious charges such as assault, manslaughter or even murder. Khan declined to comment Monday.