updated 12/8/2004 11:52:34 PM ET 2004-12-09T04:52:34

A former U.S. Marine in Iraq, testifying Wednesday at a hearing for an American military deserter seeking asylum in Canada, said several men in his unit were “psychopaths” who enjoyed killing unarmed Iraqi civilians who posed no threat.

Jimmy Massey, a staff sergeant who was in the Marines for 12 years and served three months in Iraq before being honorably discharged with post-traumatic stress syndrome, made the allegations before Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board on the final day of an asylum hearing for Army Pfc. Jeremy Hinzman, 26.

Hinzman fled Fort Bragg, N.C., to Canada weeks before his 82nd Airborne Division was due to be deployed to Iraq. He had served three years in the Army but applied for conscientious objector status before his unit was sent to Afghanistan in 2002.

He is asking for refugee status for himself, his wife and 2-year-old son, claiming he would face persecution if forced to return to the United States. Hinzman’s lawyer, Jeffry House, said he would be the first American soldier granted political asylum in Canada if his petition succeeds.

Massey, who did not know Hinzman before the hearing, said Hinzman likely would have been forced to commit atrocities that violated the Geneva Conventions if he went to Iraq.

Killed despite surrendering
Massey, 33, of Waynesville, N.C., said his 7th Marines weapons company killed more than 30 civilians during a 48-hour period in April while stationed at a checkpoint in the southern Baghdad district of Rashid. The victims included unarmed demonstrators and a man who drove up in a car and raised his hands above his head in the universal symbol of surrender.

“I know in my heart that these vehicles that came up, that they were civilians,” he said. “But I had to act on my orders. It’s a struggle within my heart.”

The orders, he said, were to shoot at anyone who drove into what is known as the “red zone” surrounding the checkpoint because they could be suicide bombers.

Massey told the tribunal he got caught up in the frenzy and shot at civilians as well.

“I take full responsibility for my actions,” he said. “We deliberately gunned down people who were civilians. I became so concerned because I felt that Marines were honestly enjoying it. I saw plenty of Marines become psychopaths. They enjoyed the killing.”

Marine Corps denies allegations
The Marine Corps denied Massey’s allegations. “We’re not saying he’s lying, but his perception of what the situation was in relation to the rules of engagement, and what was justified, is different than ours,” said Maj. Douglas Powell, a spokesman for the Marine Corps at the Pentagon.

“It was investigated and any acts of wrongdoing, in regards to violations of the laws of war, the laws of armed conflict, were unsubstantiated,” he said.

Hinzman’s case comes just as Ottawa attempts to improve relations with Washington, which soured dramatically after Canada refused to send troops to Iraq.

Hinzman argued that the war in Iraq was illegal and fighting in it would make him a war criminal. He also said he would be persecuted if forced to return to the United States, noting that he now receives threatening e-mail. A typical term in a U.S. military prison for Army desertion is a year.

Fear of persecution
“After I would be released from jail, the chances of my getting a job would be slim and there would be social persecution,” he told reporters after his hearing.

Hinzman is one of three American military deserters seeking refugee status in Canada. Hearings for Brandon Hughey of the Army’s 1st Cavalry and David Sanders of the Navy will be heard by the refugee board in January.

House, an American lawyer who first came to Canada as a draft dodger during the Vietnam War, is representing the three Americans. He said 30,000-50,000 Americans who fled to Canada during Vietnam were allowed to settle there.

The tribunal is expected to make its decision early next year.

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