James Yee: A tale of treason, terror and triumph

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For James Yee, the former Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay prison, who was accused of spying and spent 76 “cruel” days in prison, fighting for an apology from the government is his number-one goal.

Yee was in Minneapolis Friday to speak to the Muslims at their annual convention. Wearing a black skullcap, a T-shirt and sandals, the short but muscled Yee recounts his early life and his evocative ordeal in the Army as a Muslim chaplain. He’s a soft-spoken, humble-looking man with sprinkled goatee.

Yee was born in Naperville, Illinois, to a military family. His father, a second generation Chinese-American, was in the Army, as were two of his brothers. His family moved to New Jersey where he grew up. He graduated from West Point military academy, where he became an Army officer.

“After graduation, I got into an interfaith dialogue where I explored Islam among other religions, but I didn’t believe a bit of it initially,” Yee recalls.

A curious exploration turned into fascination for Captain Yee, who was a devout Christian. He bought a book about Islam “and discovered enormous similarities between Christianity and Islam,” he said. “That Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, that he will return to earth, and that Abraham and Moses were respected biblical prophets.”

But what rang a bell for Yee, who’s now called Yusuf, is Islam’s sole divinity. In Islam, Jesus is an important prophet who preceded Mohamed, but not a divine.

“Islam’s no God, but Allah resonated very well with me, but I yearned to learn more about it,” he said.

At that point, Yee converted to Islam, already the fastest-growing religion in America. His unit was deployed to Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf war. An agreement between U.S. generals and Saudi counterparts allowed him to visit Mecca, his new faith’s holiest place, to perform Umrah, a minor, voluntary pilgrimage.

Cognizant that the Army had no Muslim chaplains at the time, Yee began an earnest pursuit to become the first one. At the end of his deployment to the Gulf, his quest to grasp the depth of Islam landed him in Syria. He studied Arabic and Islam and met a young woman who would later become his wife.

In January of 2001, he achieved his goal to become a Muslim chaplain in the Army. His role was to “talk” and “teach” Islam to fellow soldiers. His superiors commended him for what he was doing.

And then, the September 11 terrorist attacks occurred. Capt. Yee’s experience was soon in demand. Unbeknown to him, his career would take him on an odyssey with an unfavorable outcome.

In November of 2002, as Muslim chaplain, Yee was deployed to Guantanamo Bay (Gitmo), Cuba, where more than 700 Muslim “terror suspects” from all over the world were detained. The departing chaplain cautioned him that Gitmo was not dour only to detainees.

Days into his new assignment, Yee says he was confounded by the prevalence of abuses against detainees. Everything from harsh interrogation techniques to outright abuses, Yee says a new chapter of his life was foisted around him.

“Koran, [Islam’s holy book] was being desecrated, ripped off, stepped on, all in the name of cell-search and security,” he recalls. “Some female guards would unclothe in front of the prisoners and even use sexually explicit tactics.”

Children as young as 12 were being held in Gitmo, according to Yee.

That, he says, is un-American.

As part of his duties, Yee would escort media personnel visiting the camp. He writes in his book that he had never reflected any emotions while doing his job, even though he profoundly disapproved some of the acts employed in the camp.

Convinced that fellow soldiers were engaged in a complicit activity that run amok, Yee sought to express his concerns to his superiors only to be turned down.

From detainee chaplain to a detainee

After his initial six months in Gitmo was extended to a year, Yee sought to take a two-week break in September 2003 with his family in Washington State. As he landed in the airport at Jacksonville, Fla., federal agents flashed their IDs and detained him. He was accused of espionage and sedition, among other things.

“They said I was spying for the detainees and Syria, just because I studied there,” he says.

He was soon transferred to a maximum security facility in Charleston, S.C., where U.S. citizens’ enemy combatants are held. Shackled at the wrist, ankle and the waist, he was thrown in a van, his eyes and ears in a cloak.

“That’s the same sensory deprivation used against Gitmo prisoners when airlifted to the camp,” said Yee as he explains his ordeal. His voice audibly shakes and his body jitters. “At that point, I realized I was seriously detained.”

His wife and then 3-year-old daughter were baffled when Yee didn’t show up at the Seattle airport, where they were arriving from Syria. Nine days passed and his wife became “traumatized.”

Yee says the Army leaked to the media that a “terrorist spy” was detained. “The entire world believed I was a spy,” he said.

In the prison, Yee says he was threatened with the death penalty, guards routinely strip-searched him and disallowed him to hear prayer calls or see arrows pointing to Mecca, the direction of his five-times-a-day prayers.

“Even Gitmo detainees, who are not U.S. citizens, had those rights,” he says.

His family hired a civilian attorney with robust military law experience. After 30 days, the lawyer was able to secure him a medium security status.

Meanwhile, his wife in Washington state was repeatedly questioned and apartment searched by federal agents to squeeze information out of her.

Using the tactics he learned in the Army to harness stress, Yee sat in solitary confinement for a total of 76 days. He said he mostly grappled with the fact that he earnestly served his country and received treatment worst than non-U.S. citizens. Two days before his release, his attorney wrote a letter to President Bush appealing for his immediate release. Yee learned that piece of information in the newspaper. Though the military refutes this, Yee thinks that he was possibly released based on that letter.

Finally, on Eid Al-Fitr day, Islam’s second holiest day marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan, he was released from prison. The guards, he said, disallowed him to attend that morning’s important prayer with other Muslim prisoners, even though they told him that he would be freed.

On that fateful day, the government’s accusations against him were crippled. Charges were significantly reduced to mishandling classified documents. That, too, was later abruptly dropped. His military status was swiftly reinstated and his record was cleared.

Though much of the material surrounding his case remains classified, Yee says the plane ticket to London and the six foreign bank accounts he allegedly controlled, which prompted a military judge to make him a flight risk, are all groundless, except, his one account in Gitmo.

Yee was honorably discharged on Jan. 7, 2005, after he resigned from the Army. He received the Army Commendation Medal for “exceptional meritorious” service.

But Yee remains haunted that he never received an apology from the government of the country he served to protect.

“Even though what happened to me was a gross miscarriage of justice, I’m prepared to forgive if I get an apology.” he said.

Four congressmen and two powerful senators, Kennedy of Massachusetts and Levin of Michigan, have demanded an investigation into Yee’s ordeal.

An impending answer might offer a thing or two about Yee’s case, but that answer might never come to light.

These days, Yee is treated like a hero among fellow Muslims. He has recently published a new book chronicling his ordeal, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.

At the Muslim convention in Minneapolis Friday where Yee gave a nostalgic lecture, the faithful lined up to buy a signed copy of his book, supplies of which quickly ran out. He was taking preorders and writing down people’s addresses so he can mail it to them. One middle-aged man, who bought a copy of the book, shook hands with Yee and effusively uttered “You’re our icon. We need more of you who can challenge the system from within.”

Yee, who knows enough Arabic to get by and to make preambles that sound more like a respected Imam in the Arab world, smiles to the faithful and signs the book with their name written in Arabic.

Yee has given speeches all over the country, in places like Harvard, Dartmouth and other Ivy League universities. His book, he says, was a best-seller in Indonesia, the most populous Muslim nation.

In fact, Yee’s career might have taken a steep jump as speaker, writer and, yes, as a fierce political campaigner. With a masters degree in international relations under his belt, Yee is coming back to Minneapolis in two weeks to help Keith Ellison, a fellow Muslim’s campaign for the U.S. Congress.

“I’d like to be part of what I hope to be a history made in Minnesota,” he said.

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