Senator: Marines set to consider charges in recruit's death
By TODD SPANGLER | The Detroit Free Press (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 8, 2017
WASHINGTON — A Marine drill instructor accused of slapping and berating as a "terrorist" a Muslim recruit from Taylor before the recruit allegedly fell to his death last March is expected to undergo a preliminary hearing this month to determine whether charges will be brought, a U.S. senator told the Free Press.
Nearly a year after 20-year-old Raheel Siddiqui fell three stories to his death at Parris Island, S.C., on March 18, no charges have been filed against the still-unnamed drill instructor accused of hitting him and forcing him to run back and forth in a training barracks even after Siddiqui requested medical attention. An investigation found that the instructor’s behavior likely drove the recruit to jump from a stairwell.
But U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., who is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told the Free Press this week that U.S. Marine Corps officials have told him that an Article 32 hearing to weigh possible criminal charges against the drill instructor is expected by the end of the month.
A Marine Corps spokesman with Training and Education Command in Quantico, Va., where an administrative review of the investigation has been ongoing since last September, did not confirm Peters’ statement but said he expects to know Friday whether he can "confirm or correct" the report. The spokesman also noted that the command — known as TECOM — is coordinating investigations involving nearly two dozen Parris Island personnel associated with hazing at the base.
Taken together, it makes it likely that the Marines' legal machinery is preparing to move forward on the case involving Siddiqui's death, an incident that got international attention and raised anew concerns about hazing and recruit mistreatment at Parris Island.
Peters could not provide a proposed date for the hearing or a summary of the charges to be considered against the drill instructor, who he said is a gunnery sergeant. But he said he had been assured that an Article 32 hearing — in which an investigative officer would take testimony and determine whether criminal charges should be recommended against the accused in a general court-martial — was in the works, though he acknowledged that if there were any last-minute changes in the legal process, he was unaware of them.
“It shows it is definitely moving forward,” said Peters, a former lieutenant commander in the U.S. Naval Reserve who noted that the investigation into Siddiqui’s death, as well as other cases involving drill instructors hazing recruits, has led to allegations of “simply unacceptable” behavior.
“I do know the Marine Corps has treated this with the seriousness that it deserves,” Peters said.
No one else connected to the case — including Siddiqui’s family – has spoken publicly about any Article 32 hearing or the status of the administrative review under way. That review follows up on allegations raised in an investigation into Siddiqui’s death that raised allegations of dereliction of duty by no fewer than eight officers and enlisted personnel at the base.
Since Siddiqui’s death, the Marines have cracked down on hazing at the iconic training base on the South Carolina coast, installed a new commander and removed at least four other leaders on the base.
Shiraz Khan, the Siddiqui family’s attorney, said the family is “absolutely shocked that no charges have been brought yet, considering the breadth of the evidence, and the fact that the investigation into Raheel’s tragic death was initiated almost a year ago.”
“It is the most difficult time they have ever had to endure, and each and every day without him — and without having charges brought against those responsible for his death — has made it impossible for his family to find peace,” Khan said.
An investigation into Siddiqui’s death ordered last spring concluded that Siddiqui rushed outside the barracks less than two weeks into boot camp and leaped over an exterior stairwell, catching his foot on a railing and crashing into another railing on the ground. He was rushed to a hospital and pronounced dead a few hours later. A civilian coroner declared his death a suicide.
Siddiqui’s family has fought that conclusion, asking the Marines to change his manner of death to “unknown” until all investigations are finalized.
The earlier investigation concluded that the drill instructor should not have been working with Siddiqui’s platoon because he was under investigation for another incident in which he allegedly berated another Muslim recruit and ordered him into an industrial dryer and burned him.
Investigations into both incidents and others produced allegations of wider hazing, documenting instances of recruits being choked, beaten, denied food and water, ordered to lie and to perform repeated physical tasks as punishment, and routinely threatened by drill instructors. Some recruits told stories of their heads being slammed into doorways and of being told, “If you’re not careful, you are going to wake up with a knife in your chest.” Senior instructors allegedly hazed more junior ones, as well.
Brig. Gen. Austin (Sparky) Renforth, who took command of the base following Siddiqui’s death, has defended the actions of most drill instructors, saying abuse and hazing is far from common. At the same time, he has instituted zero-tolerance policies for any infraction of the rules, which ban hazing or physical contact with recruits other than under specific, controlled instances.
In Siddiqui’s case, the earlier investigation found that he threatened suicide on March 13, after being with his training platoon for less than a day, but that he was cleared to return after recanting. However, during interviews, he apparently alleged that he’d been physically abused by his drill instructors — though his accusations were never reported up the chain of command.
Siddiqui’s family said he had no previous mental issues.
On the day of his death, investigators said, Siddiqui apparently refused to speak, communicating that he needed medical attention for a sore throat, but his instructor allegedly ordered him instead to do repeated runs back and forth in the barracks until he fell at the instructor’s feet.
Then, investigators say, the instructor slapped him at least once before Siddiqui jumped up and ran for the exterior door, throwing it open and leaping over the stairwell.
The executive summary of the investigation into Siddiqui’s death — dated July 27 of last year — recommended military charges against at least eight personnel at the base, including the main drill instructor, whom the investigation said allegedly failed to obey orders, mistreated and assaulted recruits and made false statements.
Since Siddiqui’s death, U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who represents Taylor, has been demanding accountability and trying to get the cause of death changed, but she acknowledged that it has been a slow go, saying, “The world is a bureaucracy.”
“I’ve said this from the beginning: The family lost their son, and I can’t bring him back,” she said. “I can never do enough. What I can do is try to make sure that any other mother or father who sends their son or daughter into the Marines won’t have them targeted because of their religion or nationality.”
Legal experts who spoke to the Free Press said they couldn’t understand what could be taking so long to bring the case to a court martial. Gary Solis, a retired Marine, former military judge and adjunct professor at Georgetown Law, called such a delay “unconscionable.”
“We have a kid who was, in effect, murdered here,” he said. “We have misconduct at a very high level. We’ve already relieved a colonel. Where are the charges? It is not that hard a case.”
Phil Cave, a military defense lawyer in northern Virginia, said there are numerous reasons pretrial investigations can drag on and that, in a case such as this one, there are reasons for Marine brass “to make sure they’re getting it right."
A widening investigation such as this one — some 20 personnel at Parris Island have been suspended from their jobs and targeted for charges or administrative sanctions under a total of three earlier investigations, including the Siddiqui one — can lead to deals being struck and more lines of inquiry that need to be followed. Recruits who may be witnesses are now all over the world and need to be tracked down and interviewed.
But the length of time involved in this case seems “near the edge” of what was appropriate, Cave said.
“You mean to tell me after a year there’s no charge sheet?” asked Eugene Fidell, a former judge advocate who teaches military law at Yale Law School and who has been representing Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who is accused of putting other solders at risk when he left his post in Afghanistan in 2009.
“I don’t understand why a matter like this would take this long. It is not an incident that happened in Kabul or Yemen. It is baffling.”
Fidell added, however, that it’s possible negotiations have been going on between the parties.
Khan, the Southfield attorney representing the family, hasn’t been critical of the Marines and the military legal process, only the time that it seems to be taking. “What we’re saying is, it’s almost been a year and we’d like some answers,” he said.
Those answers include production of any photos or documents related to Siddiqui in the days leading up to his death and a more detailed explanation of alleged hazing — and efforts to control it — at Parris Island.
“Imagine having a family lose their only son and brother. Imagine them not having any answers to what happened to him at Parris Island. Imagine being told and having the media initially report that he took his own life, but then having an official, nearly year-long investigation … Imagine that. It is absolutely horrifying, but for the Siddiqui family, it’s their reality,” Khan said.
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