Muslim Army Chaplain Falsely Imprisoned As Terrorist
By Hans Sherrer
Justice:Denied magazine, Issue 25, page 12
James Yee is an American of Chinese descent who graduated from West Point in 1990. Shortly afterwards he converted to Islam from Christianity. Yee wanted to become a Muslim Army chaplain, but that required a doctorate in divinity studies. So in 1993 he went on reserve status to complete the programs necessary to become a military chaplain. Yee moved to Damascus and studied under Syria’s grand mucti (supreme religious leader). While there he learned Arabic and married a Syrian woman.
Yee returned to the U.S. in 1999 after completing his Islamic studies, and obtained the certification necessary to become a military chaplain. Yee then returned to active Army duty and was assigned as a Muslim chaplain at Fort Lewis, Washington.
After the events of September 11, 2001, Yee, an Army Captain, spent much of his time explaining Islam to both the public and military personnel.
In November 2002 Yee was assigned as the chaplain for the Muslims detained at the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba military prison - also known as Camp Delta. He soon began clashing with his superiors over what he considered mistreatment of the Muslim prisoners. Among his complaints was the prisoners were in an atmosphere of “unrelieved tension and boredom.” 1 Yee’s complaining successfully resulted in “recordings of the ritual calls to prayer broadcast through the” prison, and ensuring the prisoner’s “food was prepared according to Islamic dietary guidelines.” 2
The military’s response to Yee’s concerns about prisoner treatment was a form of ‘shoot the messenger’ - it began investigating him. Yee’s every move was watched. On September 10, 2003 he flew from Guantanamo Bay to the Jacksonville, Florida naval air station. Customs Service agents inspecting his luggage allegedly found diagrams of cells at the Guantanamo Bay prison, and the names of detainees and their interrogators. Yee was arrested on the spot “for suspicion of espionage and aiding captured Taliban and al-Qaida fighters” 3 Newspaper headlines and news broadcasts across the country trumpeted Yee's arrest for espionage and aiding international terrorists. Those are capital offenses - so at the time of his arrest Yee was potentially facing charges that could result in his execution. Yee was immediately transported to the maximum-security Naval brig (prison) in Charleston, South Carolina and put in solitary confinement. The private lawyer hired to defend Yee, Eugene Fidell of Seattle, said, “It’s shocking an officer is in a maximum-security prison.” 4
On October 10th Yee was charged with two counts of failing to obey a lawful order: “taking classified information home,” and “wrongly transporting classified information.” 5 Those are relatively minor charges that could result in a maximum of a year in prison and a bad conduct discharge.
After the Army’s intensive six week investigation of Yee following his arrest, four more charges were filed against him on November 24, 2003: making a false official statement; failure to obey an order or regulation; adultery; and conduct unbecoming an officer. 6 After the last of the six charges against him were filed, Yee was released from maximum security, after spending 76 days in solitary confinement.
The six charges were relatively minor infractions compared with the alleged espionage and treasonous aiding of the enemy that precipitated his arrest. Kevin Barry, a retired Coast Guard captain and military judge commented, “All this suggests they really don’t have much on him.
It indicates the Army has decided to lowball this.” 7
Muslims and Chinese-American’s across the country rallied in support of Yee. His treatment as an Army officer imprisoned in a solitary confinement was compared with the mistreatment of Wen Ho Lee after his false arrest for allegedly passing US nuclear secrets to China. Samia El-Moslimany of the Seattle chapter of Council on American-Islamic Relations said at a November 2003 rally in support of Yee, “Captain Yee has already been tried and convicted in the media before there were even charges brought against him. He was basically branded as a spy and traitor to his country. We think this is happening because he’s a Muslim and Chinese-American.” 8 Yee’s wife, Huda Suboh spoke through a translator, “the only news in the paper about my husband is coming from the government. James wants me to tell you all that he is innocent. He is going to fight the charges with all his energy.” 9 A spokesman for Justice for New Americans said, “there is no evidence that Yee ever gave anything to a foreign government.” 10
On March 20, 2004, the case against Yee that had begun with allegations he had committed capital offenses, including “spying, mutiny, sedition and aiding the enemy,” completely collapsed: the Army dropped all six charges against him. 11 Yee’s lawyer, Eugene Fidell said, “Captain Yee has won.” 12
Yee was assigned to Fort Lewis, and on April 5th he returned to his home in Olympia (near Fort Lewis) and was reunited with his wife and four year-old daughter. The 36 year-old Yee told people gathered at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, “It’s a great day to be back in Washington state, and to be back with my family.” 13 Somewhat ironically, he said of his ordeals impact on his daughter, “Every time she sees me on
TV or in the news, she says, ‘Everybody loves my daddy.’” 14
However in a classic example of the ‘sore losers syndrome,’ after dropping the criminal charges, the Army decided to publicly smear Yee by administratively charging and finding him guilty of adultery and having adult images stored in his computer. Yee appealed the finding, and in mid-April, General James T. Hill, commander of the U.S. Southern Command ruled in Yee’s favor. Yee’s lawyer Eugene Fidell, said Yee’s clearing of all criminal and administrative charges was a “bittersweet victory. It wouldn’t have killed them to admit a mistake. The Army has to be big enough to admit a mistake. In that regard, today was disappointing.” 15
After Yee’s exoneration, two members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senators Carl Levin (D-MI) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), request in an April 23rd letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that he initiate an official investigation of Captain Yee's treatment. The two senators wrote, “The manner in which Chaplain Yee was detained and prosecuted raises serious questions about the fair and effective administration of military justice. We urge you to give this issue your immediate attention.” 16 In a June 4th letter to Secretary Rumsfeld, four members of Congress joined in calling for an official investigation into Yee’s treatment. 17
At a June 25th event to raise money to help pay his legal fees, James Yee said, I’m not here tonight to talk about my case, but to thank those who stand in support of civil liberties.” 18 At the same event, Wayne Lum observed that “James Yee would not have been targeted if it were not for this heightened hysteria against Muslims. This case was calculated. It was a coldly calculated targeting of an innocent person.” 19
On August 2nd James Yee released a letter of resignation
from the Army effective in January 2005. He wrote, “In 2003, I was unfairly accused of grave offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice and unjustifiably placed in solitary confinement for 76 days. Those unfounded allegations – which were leaked to the media – irreparably injured my personal and professional reputation and destroyed my prospects for a career in the United States Army.” 20
The irony of the Army’s systematic destruction of James Yee’s career is that two days before his arrest, his commander at Guantanamo Bay gave him the highest possible performance rating. 21 It is also ironic that seven months after Yee’s arrest that was precipitated by his whistleblowing about prisoner mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay, news reports informed the entire world of the U.S. military’s mistreatment of prisoners there and in Iraq. As this is written in August 2004, new revelations of prisoner mistreatment at the Guantanamo Bay prison continue to be reported.
1 Chaplain clashed with officials over Guantanamo detainees, John Mintz (The Washington Post), The Seattle Times, October 24, 2003.
2 Muslim Army Chaplain Detained in Terror War, Paisley Dodds (AP), The Seattle Times, September 21, 2003.
3 Arrest for Suspicion of Espionage a Shock to Those Who Knew Chaplain at Fort Lewis, Ray Rivera and Cheryl Phillips(staff), Seattle Times, September 23, 2003
4 Chaplain clashed with officials over Guantanamo detainees, supra.
5 Muslim Army Chaplain at Guantanamo Charged with Disobeying Orders, Matt Kelley (AP), The Seattle Times, October 10, 2003.
6 Army Adds Charges Against Guantanamo Chaplain, CNN.com, November 25, 2003.
7 Muslim Chaplain Charged With Disobeying His Orders, Seattle Times news services, The Seattle Times, October 11, 2003.
8 Muslim Chaplain’s Backers Press For His Release, Janet I. Tu (staff), The Seattle Times, November 21, 2003.
11 Military Drops All Charges Against Chaplain, Ray Rivera and Ralph Thomas (staff), The Seattle Times, March 20, 2004.
13 Back Home, Army Chaplain thanks Supporters, Ray Rivera (staff), The Seattle Times, April 6, 2004.
15 Army Reverses Reprimand, Clearing Chaplain's Record, Ray Rivera (staff), The Seattle Times, April 15, 2004.
16 Pentagon Urged to Investigate Treatment of Muslim Chaplain, Ray Rivera (staff), The Seattle Times, April 28, 2004.
17 Army’s Treatment of Chaplain in Question, AP, The Seattle Times, June 11, 2004.
18 Fund-raiser held for Fort Lewis Army Chaplain, Madison J. Gray (AP), Seattle Times, June 27, 2004.
20 Muslim Chaplain James Yee to Leave Army, Ray Rivera, Seattle Times, Aug 3, 2004.