A third Muslim military recruit has been added to the list of alleged victims of a Marine Corps drill instructor accused of terrorizing and abusing young men under his care.
During their opening statements at his court-martial here Tuesday, military prosecutors said Gunnery Sgt. Joseph Felix put two Muslim recruits inside an industrial clothes dryer at the Marines’ storied recruit training facility in Parris Island, South Carolina — starting it in one case. He’s also accused of repeatedly slapping another Muslim recruit seconds before the young man jumped three stories to his death.
Felix is charged with cruelty and maltreatment, obstruction of justice, drunk and disorderly conduct and failure to obey a general order. He has pleaded not guilty.
Twenty Marine drill instructors were swept up this year in a broad investigation into claims of hazing and physical abuse targeting recruits at Parris Island, which the tradition-obsessed Marines consider hallowed ground. The scandal shocked the military community and appalled those in Congress with oversight of the armed forces. Several of those instructors face court-martial. One was already acquitted.
Prosecutors say Felix called all three Muslim recruits “terrorists” and insulted their religion during whiskey-fueled tirades in July 2015 and March 2016. The new charges concern the alleged abuse of Rekan Hawez. The Navy Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) learned of the incident while questioning members of Felix’s platoon, according to Capt. Joshua Pena, a Marine Corps spokesman. Hawez told investigators the drill instructor put him in a dryer but did not turn it on.
In a small, ranch-style courtroom Tuesday, the burly former drill instructor scowled as one of his accusers, Lance Cpl. Ameer Bourmeche, detailed his treatment as a boot-camp recruit two years ago. Bourmeche’s story, along with the alleged maltreatment and suicide of Raheel Siddiqui in 2016, has galvanized the Marine Corps to confront issues of hazing, bullying and religious persecution in boot camp and beyond.
Bourmeche, 23, a hydraulic mechanic from Brooklyn, is stationed at Camp Pendleton in California. He told the court he awoke in the middle of the night by shouts of “Where’s the terrorist?” He said two drill instructors marched him to the showers, where Felix elbowed him in the chin.
“I could tell they were drunk,” Bourmeche said. “I smelled alcohol.”
After being forced to do push-ups, crunches and other exercises while in the shower, Bourmeche said Felix and the other drill instructor, Sgt. Michael Eldridge, told him they needed to dry him off, so they took him to the “Maytag room” and made him climb into an industrial-size clothes dryer. Bourmeche said they turned on the dryer, with him inside, three separate times.
“I was tumbling in there,” Bourmeche said. “I was burning up.”
Eldridge also was charged over the alleged incident, but he is cooperating with the prosecution and is expected to face less-severe punishment. He’s one of 76 witnesses likely to testify during Felix’s court-martial, including seven drill instructors in all.
After each tumble, the dryer was turned off and the drill instructors asked him if he was still a Muslim, Bourmeche testified. Twice he said he was, and they turned the dryer back on. So on the third time, he said he was no longer a Muslim, and that’s when his abuse stopped — for one night.
The next night, Bourmeche said, the same two drill instructors woke him again, this time tying him up while bent over, his head almost touching his legs. They then forced him to march and run around the squad bay, he said. Later the drill instructors made him yell “Allahu Akbar” — which in Arabic means God is great — while simulating the beheading of his platoon-mate, Bourmeche said.
Military prosecutor Capt. Corey Weilert asked Bourmeche what he was thinking while trapped in the dryer.
“That I made a big mistake by joining the Marine Corps,” he said. “I lost all trust in my senior leaders and my brothers.”
Felix also is accused of terrorizing Siddiqui. After days of cruel treatment in March 2016, the recruit snapped, sprinted out of the squad bay and leapt over a rail, falling more than 40 feet onto a concrete staircase, according to military investigations. Siddiqui was pronounced dead hours later. A medical examiner said the cause was blunt force head trauma.
The court ruled in July that actions leading up to Siddiqui’s death are fair game during Felix’s trial, and prosecutors brought up the incident early in their opening statement Tuesday. They did not suggest Felix was directly responsible for Siddiqui’s apparent suicide, but they argued that his alleged treatment of the recruit was criminal and discriminatory.
“Recruit Raheel Siddiqui is deceased,” said Lt. Col. Michael Libretto, the judge, in his opening remarks to the member panel, a jury of eight Marines of equal or superior military rank to Felix. “As a result of his death, Raheel Siddiqui will not be a witness in this proceeding.”
Eldridge was responsible for the cruelest treatment, Felix’s lawyer, Lt. Cdr. Daniel Bridges, said.
“Eldridge did most of it,” Bridges said. “He put [Bourmeche] in [the dryer] and turned it on.”
Bridges also argued that Bourmeche gave conflicting statements to law enforcement months after the incident, and that the absence of skin burns show he exaggerated how long he was in the dryer when it was turned on.
Felix’s supervisor also was court-martialed for failing to remove Felix, then a senior drill instructor, from his role supervising recruits despite credible reports of past inappropriate or violent conduct.
Lt. Col. Joshua Kissoon, the former commander of Parris Island’s 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, is charged with making false statements, failing to heed an order, and conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. He will face court-martial at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, but no trial date has been set.
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