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s e p t e m b e r 2010
middle east exclusive
CaptaIn James Yee was a U.s. mIlItarY offICer who Converted to Islam and beCame as a mUslIm ChaplaIn at GUantanamo baY. then In a bIzarre tUrn of events, he was arrested on CharGes of espIonaGe and ended Up In a U.s. navY prIson as an Inmate. thIs Is the fUll and InCredIble storY, told In hIs own words, exClUsIvelY to esqUIre mIddle east
as told to a rs a la n If tIk ha r
converted to Islam In aprIl of 1991, ten months after I had graduated from West Point. I had just completed the officer basic course in the Air Defense Artillery as a young second lieutenant. Initially, I didn’t think my becoming Muslim was a great life changing experience. I was raised as a Christian by my mother, so after learning about the common Abrahamic roots of Christianity and Islam, my journey to Islam was a reconfirmation of the monotheistic faith in one God. It wasn’t until I visited Mecca for the first time that I saw the true beauty of Islam. I was an army platoon leader deployed to Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of the First Gulf War in late 1991. I learned of the opportunity for American Muslims in the US military serving in the Gulf to journey to Mecca for pilgrimage – for Umrah. As a new Muslim, I jumped at the chance, especially because the trip was supported by the command. It was there that I saw just how universal a religion Islam is. Seeing men and women, of every colour and ethnicity during those four days in Mecca was truly inspiring. It emphasised something that I had learned as a child in school, “…that all men are created equal.” It was that trip that created a desire to know much more about the faith I had just accepted. I also realised that our military did not have any Muslim chaplains. I believed Muslims in the U.S. armed forces could not be properly represented without this. That was the first time I got the idea that one day I would change my career track. When I was first assigned to Guantanamo Bay in November of 2002, my initial impression was that the inmates were all “dangerous” men. That idea was, of course, created by media reports of what government and military officials were saying. But from the moment I stepped into the cell blocks of Camp Delta, I knew that this was false. I went into Gitmo’s prison camp the first evening I arrived, and it was perplexing to realise that the individuals caged in these cells were just ordinary Muslims. They didn’t look, behave, or speak any differently than other Muslims that I had known. From behind the grated steel mesh of the locked doors, they were calling for us to come to over to their cells to greet us with “As-salaamu Alaikum” (Peace be unto you) and to chat more. Chaplain Hamza did the introductions and the prisoners were very happy to see another American Muslim. dId torture occur at Guantanamo Bay? Yes, it did. The cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment is well documented. I witnessed shackled prisoners being dragged through the gravel to their interrogation sessions. I witnessed prisoners being subjected to sensory deprivation. And I witnessed prisoners being threatened
with ferocious, barking, military attack dogs. And no, these dogs were not muzzled. There were also far worse things taking place – especially in the interrogation rooms, of which while I didn’t see, but I was well aware. Things like sleep deprivation, physical assault, sexual humiliation and forced nudity by female interrogators. I refused to observe the interrogation of any prisoner at Guantanamo, but back on the cell blocks I witnessed the results the bruises on the face and arms of prisoners and their broken teeth. What was also utterly disturbing was the way in which prisoners were systematically persecuted for their faith. Korans were desecrated, Islamic prayers were ridiculed, and water was denied to prevent washing before prayers. Prisoners had their beards forcefully shaven, and sometimes satanic symbols were used during interrogations. I later learned of how prisoners were forcefully baptised by interrogators disguised as Catholic priests. Prolonged solitary confinement was common place. It was especially bad for prisoners holed away in the Maximum Security Unit cells — known as MSU’s. These were dark cells where prisoners were subjected to isolation in extreme heat and humidity or frigid cold temperatures made possible by heavy air conditioners. Senator John McCain said that the worst torture he ever experienced as a POW in Vietnam was solitary confinement. He said: “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” And it’s relevant to mention here that John McCain admits that under torture, he betrayed his country. Many prisoners complained to me about how badly they were being treated — and especially how they were being humiliated for being Muslims. This is what I attempted to put a stop to by addressing this to my chain of command. From a military chaplain’s perspective, using religion as a weapon to humiliate and persecute individuals cannot be justified. It wholeheartedly goes against our American values, and it certainly went against army values — especially those of duty, respect, honour and integrity, IslamophoBIa was wIdespread at Guantanamo. This hostility was also felt by the many patriotic American Muslims serving at Gitmo in the military or as civilians. One day, the commander of Guantanamo’s prison operation, Major General Geoffrey Miller, stopped the accommodation of religious dietary requests for American-Muslim military personnel. Army regulations provide members of different faiths accommodation to meet religious dietary obligations, so I was quite taken aback when MG Miller denied supporting his own troops. Every Muslim chaplain that served at Guantanamo was under suspicion by the command and the Joint Intelligence Interrogation Group operation. I conducted a weekly Muslim worship service
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on Friday’s at noon. This was for American-Muslims serving at Guantanamo. Muslim prisoners were confined to their cells and were denied attendance. There were times when I noticed FBI agents conducting surveillance of our prayer service. I knew they were FBI when a few of the translators in Gitmo’s intelligence operation pointed them out. The American-Muslim community at Guantanamo Bay often got together for social and chapel fellowship. We enjoyed many potluck dinners that were also attended by non-Muslim friends. This was our way to enjoy what little free time we found. It was certainly a lot more wholesome than drinking ourselves to oblivion at the handful of bars on the naval base, which is what most of the soldiers did with their free time. These gatherings, many of which I hosted at my personal residence, gained the attention of U.S. intelligence personnel. Rumours were started that we were a “terrorist sleeper cell” gathering to plan subversive activity. People in the intelligence operation often referred to us as Hamas extremists. American-Muslim translators were also under suspicion. At least two were secretly arrested — Airman, Ahmed Al Halabi of the U.S. Air Force and civilian Dept. of Defense translator, Ahmed Mehalba. Both were Americans sacrificing to serve at Guantanamo, and both were also accused by the U.S. government of being part of a subversive spy ring at Guantanamo, of which I was supposedly the ring leader. I believe this emphasises the amateurism of the intelligence personnel serving at Guantanamo during that time. This culminated with me being secretly arrested. I was falsely accused of spying, espionage and aiding the enemy. As a result I was jailed for seventy-six days in a maximum security naval brig. when I was fIrst arrested by an NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service) agent, I thought it was absolutely ridiculous. But at the same time I naively believed the matter would be clearedup quickly — a day or two, if not a few hours. But when I saw the charges of espionage, spying, aiding the enemy, mutiny and sedition on the documents, it just blew my mind. I thought the military and the command was utterly crazy. Then a military prosecutor for the command threatened me with the death penalty. I was shackled at the wrists, waist and ankles, in the same way they shackle prisoners in Guantanamo. This was when I definitely knew something was up. They put me in the back of a truck next to an armed guard, with two other armed guards in the front. The armed guard put a pair of blackened out, plastic goggles over my eyes so I couldn’t see anything. Then he put these heavy cupping ear-phone devices over my ears, so I now couldn’t hear anything — a type of torturous treatment known as sensory deprivation. I had no idea where they were taking me. I believed I was being carted away to a secret black-site where I might not ever be seen again. I feared being brutally beaten up or being fatally shot by one of the armed guards. I knew at that moment that I was essentially being disappeared in America. Neither my wife and daughter, nor my mum and dad, or anyone else knew what had happened to me when I didn’t show up on my connecting flight from Jacksonville, Florida to Seattle, WA. I fully understood that President Bush had declared “enemy combatants” as people who did not have any rights. He had even declared that Geneva Conventions did not apply in Guantanamo. After quickly recognising just how similar to the prisoners in Guantanamo I was being treated, I feared that all of my rights would
esquire s e p t e m b e r 2010
“charges of espionage, spying, aiding the enemy, mutiny and sedition. then a military prosecutor for the command threatened me with the death penalty”
James Yee at a rally for then presidential candidate, Barack Obama
be stripped from me, even if I was a U.S. citizen. It didn’t matter that I was a third generation American that I had graduated from the prestigious United States Military Academy at West Point, that I had served in the aftermath of the First Gulf War, or that both of my brothers were also on active duty in the US army. I feared for my life at that point. I thought I too would be forever doomed to prison, especially after learning that I was being held along side Jose Padilla, Yaser Hamdi and Ali Saleh Kahlah Al-Marri — all declared by the U.S. government as “enemy combatants” — at the Consolidated Naval Brig in Charleson, SC. those seventy-sIx days of solItary confInement were extremely harrowing, to say the least. To begin with, I was held incommunicado, and therefore denied all contact with my wife and family. The military even refused my demand that they contact my wife or family to inform them that I was in government custody as a prisoner. My family was horrified when they learned of my whereabouts — not from the military, but from breaking news reports on TV. Initial media coverage was based solely on information leaked by the government almost two weeks after my disappearance. My family watched in panic and fear as pictures of me flashed over and over on every news channel, and alongside media reports that accused me of being a Muslim terrorist spy that had infiltrated Guantanamo Bay. While all this was happening, I was locked away in a concrete cubicle no larger than the cage-like cells in Guantanamo. Marine guards threatened to beat me violently, and I was held in isolation for 24-hours a day under the constant watch of two surveillance video cameras installed in the ceiling of my cell. Only later, when I was afforded military defense counsel, did an attorney fight to get me a single hour of recreation outside of my cell. I also felt utterly violated by the almost daily strip searches, which I believe were done to humiliate me. Why else would they continuously view the innermost areas of my private parts both front
I receIved an honoraBle dIscharGe and a second U.S. Army Commendation medal for “exceptionally meritorious service” when I separated from the military in January 2005. That to me was clearly the Army admitting they had made a mistake. I never received an official apology, but the military never apologises. That’s one of the many faults I’ve seen with its leadership — it can never fully admit to mistakes nor take full responsibility when bad decisions have been made. That’s not good when you expect your nation’s military to uphold the highest standards of honour and integrity. Although I no longer server the U.S. military in any official capacity, I’m extremely proud of my service to the nation. I’m also extremely proud of being a West Point graduate. In fact, I’m planning to attend my twenty-year reunion this year in September. Today, my military and Guantanamo experience has led me down a path of increased civic engagement, to the extent that I was even elected as a national delegate for Barack Obama during his Presidential campaign. I had the honour of attending the historic 2008 Democratic National Convention, casting a delegate vote for Barack Obama, and then later attending his inauguration in 2009. Wow, what a roller coaster ride — from West Point Graduate, to U.S. Army Muslim Chaplain, to wrongly accused spy, to National Delegate for Barack Obama. Who knows what comes next? and back? You will never convince me that strip searching me in this manner was done as a matter of security procedure. Being held in solitary confinement for two-and-a-half months in this manner was bad enough. But what’s worse is that thirty of those days were during Ramadan. I spent that entire holy month of 2003 inside a cold prison cell, fasting alone. There was no breaking of my daily fast (Iftar) with my family. There was no Taraweeh (nightly Ramadan prayers) in congregation at the mosque with my community. I was not even allowed to perform the Eid prayer with other Muslim prisoners being held at the Consolidated Naval Brig. I was flatly denied all these special Ramadan blessings. Thankfully though, my faith in Islam provided me the necessary strength and patience during this most trying time. I could do nothing, except put my complete trust in God the Almighty, recognising that there must be wisdom in divineness of His plan. In this way, my faith only grew stronger. the numBer one reason for the adultery and pornography accusations, which were subsequently levied against me, was to smear my reputation. I have no doubt about that. My military record was (and still is) spotless. When I was wrongly accused of several capital crimes, I had just received a stellar officer evaluation report and a couple of military joint service awards for my contributions to the joint task force mission. The military’s devious characterisation of me just didn’t add up. When it became crystal clear, especially to the media, that I was in no way a “terrorist spy”, the military looked for a way to save face. The military was heavily criticised for this miscarriage of justice — so it decided to retaliate by vindictively destroying my reputation. And what better way to smear a chaplain than with charges of adultery and pornography? It also thought these charges would pull attention away from the real issues — that I am not, nor have I ever been a terrorist spy, that my civil liberties had been violated, that I had been put through a harrowing miscarriage of justice, and that bigotry and paranoia contributed to the entire situation. Did it work? No. They only proved to be a further embarrassment when I was subsequently cleared of those charges as well. I state emphatically that I never did anything to taint, tarnish or damage my extensive record of excellence and positive contributions while serving in the U.S. Army. prIsoners at Guantanamo Bay do not need to Be relocated, they need to be released. We should never hold individuals indefinitely, without charges in Guantanamo, in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. If the U.S. government is not going to put an imprisoned individual on trial, then that person should be released and sent home. If a freed prisoner does not want to go home, then he should be free to go to any country that does not object to this person settling there. Can some Guantanamo prisoner be released into the U.S? Sure, I think it would be very appropriate to permit some prisoners to be freed in the U.S. – especially those from Western China known as the Uighurs. They’ve never been deemed or classified as “enemy combatants.” They can be resettled with the help of the American Uighur community here in the U.S. If the U.S. government believes any prisoner in Guantanamo Bay is guilty of any crime, then it should prosecute that individual in a federal court of law. This would uphold the legal principal of due process, bring forth evidence and allow an impartial judge or jury to make its decision. Guantanamo prisoners should be given the same legal rights that any other criminal defendant is afforded. And it should be done in a U.S. federal court, not in a “military commission”. Federal courts are more than adequate to try suspects for crimes of terrorism, and have proven that over the years. Today, it’s my view, as it was when I arrived to Guantanamo Bay, that there wasn’t a single prisoner in any way connected to the tragic attacks of September 11th. If the U.S. had captured anyone suspected of a serious terrorist crime, then this individual would have been taken to secret CIA black site, not to Guantanamo Bay. In my view, no real actionable intelligence has ever been gained by intelligence operations at Guantanamo. This prison camp has not saved any lives. It has only served to damage the reputation of the United States through violations of international law and human rights, and it has contributed extensively as a recruiting tool for extremist organisations - many of which are inclined toward violence. Guantanamo Bay has taken the lives of at least five prisoners – all of who were never charged with a crime. It has not made America safer.
As told to Arsalan Iftikhar, a contributing writer for Esquire Middle East, founder of TheMuslimGuy.com and an international human rights lawyer in Washington DC.
s e p t e m b e r 2 0 10 esquire
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