updated 8/17/2006 5:24:54 AM ET 2006-08-17T09:24:54

A Marine officer was charged Wednesday with assaulting three civilians in the Iraqi town of Hamdania last spring.

The Marine Corps said 2nd Lt. Nathan P. Phan beat the three men so severely April 10 that they could have died. He is accused of choking two of them and putting a loaded M9 service pistol into the mouth of the other.

Phan, 26, also is charged with making a false official statement.

Phan denies the charges, said defense attorney David Sheldon.

"We stand by the fact that these charges are baseless and have no merit," Sheldon said. "Lt. Phan is proud of his Marine Corps service and looks forward to continuing to serve honorably."

The case came to light when the Naval Criminal Investigative Service probed a separate incident in Hamdania, a town northwest of Baghdad. Seven Marines and a Navy corpsman are accused of kidnapping and murdering a 52-year-old Iraqi man there on April 26. Those eight troops are in the brig at Camp Pendleton.

12 troops charged in total
Three Marines charged in the April 26 incident and three other enlisted Marines are charged in the April 10 incident. A total of 12 troops have now been charged in connection with one or both cases.

The service members are from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, based at California's Camp Pendleton. All belonged to Kilo Company's 2nd Platoon. It was led by Phan, who is the highest ranking among those charged.

One of the Marines charged with kidnapping and murder waived his right to a preliminary hearing on Wednesday.

Attorneys for Pfc. John Jodka III said their client declined an upcoming Article 32 hearing because the event was to be a "rubber stamp" to a court-martial.

At an Article 32 hearing, which is similar to a grand jury proceeding, a commanding officer determines whether there is probable cause to bring a defendant to trial.

Attorneys Joseph Casas and Jane Siegel also said the government had denied several requests for evidence they say would have helped their client at a hearing. The attorneys argued that Jodka would save thousands of dollars in legal fees by going straight to trial, and that the only way to get the evidence they need is by filing a motion before a judge at a trial.

"If there is nothing to be gained, then there is no reason to have a 32," Siegel said. "The government has made it very clear they don't intend to move off their butts and grant any of our requests until this goes to trial."

Lt. Col. Sean Gibson said prosecutors had provided the defense with all available evidence that they are allowed to see so far.

Murder charges
Prosecutors claim Jodka was one of the eight service members who went into Hamdania, took a man from his home, tied him up, put him in a hole and shot him without provocation April 26.

Hoping to make the man look like an insurgent planting explosives, the troops placed an AK-47 assault rifle in his hands and a shovel in the hole, investigators said.

Casas said he believed additional Marines had been charged with assault so the government could persuade them to testify against the men in the brig in the hope of securing a murder conviction.

"Let's face it, the big fish in this pond are the Pendleton eight, and they are trying to get to them by getting some little fish as bait," Casas said.

Jodka's Article 32 was supposed to have been on Sept. 25. Hearings for the other Marines and the sailor are set for September and October.

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