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Supporters optimistic after ex-U.S. Marine appears in Mexico court

By Daniel Wallis

(Reuters) - Supporters of a former U.S. Marine held for more than three months in a Mexican jail on weapons charges said on Thursday they were encouraged by his first court appearance and were hopeful he would be home soon.

Andrew Tahmooressi, 25, was arrested on March 31 by Mexican customs agents who found guns in his pickup truck at the San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana.

His first appearance was a closed-door session that lasted more than seven hours in Tijuana on Wednesday.

Serving California, a faith-based non-profit group that supports Tahmooressi and his mother, said the hearing represented a vital step in clearing his name.

"We were able to successfully present much evidence to prove Sergeant Tahmooressi's innocence," said Philip Dunn, the group's president, who attended the session.

In a statement, Dunn said Tahmooressi was cross-examined and presented his defense of no criminal intent.

"We are encouraged by the Mexican judicial system, which provided a fair opportunity to share Sgt. Tahmooressi's case, helping clear up this misunderstood situation," he said, adding the former Marine remained in good spirits.

A prosecution source told Reuters that prosecutors would not be making any public statements until the case concluded.

Supporters say the Afghan war veteran drove into Mexico with three registered firearms after making a wrong turn and never meant to cross the border.

They say Tahmooressi, who left the Marines in 2012, called 911 after realizing he had entered Mexico by accident with the guns and 400 rounds of ammunition in his truck.

In May, the Mexican customs administrator in Tijuana told local media that Tahmooressi did not cross into Mexico by accident and that he did not say when he arrived he had weapons in his possession.

A lawyer for Tahmooressi, Federico Benitez, accuses the Mexican customs authority of violating his client's rights by holding him without access to an attorney for several hours immediately after his arrest.

Benitez also said there were worrying questions about a search warrant for the ex-serviceman's car that appeared to be dated March 28, three days before his arrest.

"From the defense's perspective, the hearing today was a success," the lawyer told reporters in Tijuana late on Wednesday.

Tahmooressi's mother was at the hearing and thanked the judge for letting her spend 20 minutes with him.

"He's strong, confident," she told reporters in Tijuana.

The former Marine is due in court again on Aug. 4.

(Reporting by Daniel Wallis in Denver; Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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