April 6, 2007

Chaplain Decries Guantanamo Prison Abuses

Print More

Army Captain James Yee was headed home for some rest and relaxation from his post as a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay when the FBI detained him. Five months later, including 76 days in solitary confinement at the U.S. Naval Consolidated Brig, all charges were dropped and Yee found himself a free man. Last night he shared the story of his faith, his service in the armed forces and his imprisonment with the Cornell community.
“It’s an important [story] for everyone around the world to understand some of the realities of the world that we live in today,” Yee stressed.
Yee, a convert to Islam, is a third-generation Chinese-American and was raised as a Lutheran. He first became interested in Islam during his time at West Point. While first exploring the religion, he was surprised to find many commonalities between Islam and Christianity, such as the stories of Noah’s Ark, Abraham, David, Joseph and the birth of Jesus.
“That’s how I converted to Islam, on a very doctrinal level,” Yee explained. “I just wanted to be a simple Muslim.”
Five months after his conversion, he got the chance to visit Mecca while serving in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War. There, he was moved by the vast diversity he saw.
“For me, this was an eye opening experience,” Yee said.
From that experience, Yee decided he wanted to become a Muslim chaplain for the U.S. Army. In January 2001, he achieved his dream.
Nine months later, after the attacks of September 11, Yee began to act as an ambassador of Islam. He briefed soldiers and service members about the religion and educated them about the Muslim culture. Looking back, Yee wondered if this was in anticipation of a mobilization of troops in the Middle East.
Praised for his hard work, Yee was hand picked to minister to the soldiers, civilians and 660 prisoners, all Muslim, at Guantanamo. There, Yee had open access to listen to the prisoners and try to relieve tension between the prisoners and the guards.
“A good chaplain is a good listener,” Yee explained.
Yee soon heard about some disturbing occurrences at Guantanamo, especially during interrogations. He was especially upset by what he called the interrogators’ secret weapon: the use of religion against the prisoners.
Prisoners told Yee how they were forced to bow on a satanic circle, or pentagram, painted on the ground. According to Yee, female interrogators would exploit Islam’s gender roles by undressing in front of the prisoners and even grabbing the prisoners’ genitals during interrogations. Yee was shocked by this behavior, which he found degrading not only to the prisoners but to the interrogators and to women in general.
“Where can you get free lap dances?” asked Yee. “Down in Guantanamo if you’re a Muslim prisoner.
Yee also described that the Koran was shaken up and down, thrown to the ground and stomped upon. At this, prisoners would protest noisily, go on hunger strikes and even attempt suicide.
Ten months after serving at Guantan-amo, Yee was flying home to see family when he was stopped by customs. He was placed in the back of a truck and chained at his wrists, waist and ankles. Goggles painted black were placed over his eyes and soundproof earmuffs were placed on his ears. Yee suddenly found himself the subject of the same sensory deprivation he had heard was employed on the Guantanamo prisoners.
Initially, Yee faced charges of mutiny, aiding the enemy and other serious offences that would have merited the death penalty. However, the case against Yee soon fell apart.
Almost two months later, Yee was charged with minor charges including mishandling classified information, released and reassigned to the chaplain’s office at Fort Benning, Ga., to await trial. Three months later all charges were dropped.
Yee said he believes that he was targeted for his faith as an American Muslim, his ethnicity as a Chinese-American and for his self-declared patriotism in finding the inhumane treatment of prisoners un-American.
“The lesson is that we are living in a very dangerous post 9/11 era,” Yee warned. “This happened to me, it could happen to anyone.”
Yee encouraged his audience to fight for its freedom and open its eyes to abuses occurring in Guantanamo and elsewhere..
“Gitmo is going to be a very dark spot on the history of our country,” Yee predicted.
The event was sponsored by the Islamic Alliance for Justice (IAJ). According to IAJ President Kareem Shibib ’08 the group sought Yee for his armed service, dedication to religion and incredible patriotism.
“It is essentially our responsibility to address this issue,” Shibib said. “We are deeply concerned with, for example, the desecration of the Koran.”
Shibib stressed that this was not just a Muslim issue, but an American issue.
When Nevin Sabet first heard Yee’s story, she was outraged. She attended the lecture to show her support.
“I’ve been following the story for a long time,” Sabet said.
Junaid Rahman grad found Yee’s talk very informative. Although he was already familiar with the story, hearing it in person brought a lot of new information to light.
“It makes it real,” Rahman said.