Volume 17 • Issue 6 | July 2 - 8, 2004

Muslim chaplain saw prison bars from both sides


Marking his first pubic appearance since claims of espionage against him were dropped, Army Captain James Yee thanked members of the Asian American community for their support at a benefit dinner in his honor held in Chinatown.

“First I want to say thanks to God, who has power over all things,” said Yee, who was the Army’s Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay. “And to my supporters who have supported me throughout my whole ordeal.”

Yee, a Chinese American, was arrested in Sept. 2003 and accused of carrying classified documents out of the military prison, where he counseled Muslim detainees captured in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He was held for nearly three months in solitary confinement at a naval brig in South Carolina. During his first month in custody, his family says he was not allowed to contact them or an attorney and was not formally charged with a crime. He was also blindfolded, chained and subjected to sensory deprivation while interrogated without a lawyer present, they said.

In March, the military dropped the most serious accusations of espionage and instead charged him with adultery for an affair he had with a fellow officer and downloading pornography onto his computer. Those charges were also dismissed. At a non-criminal hearing in March, Yee received a reprimand for the adultery and pornography charges and was allowed to return to his chaplain duties at Fort Lewis, Washington in May.

His family said he is under an Army order not to talk about his case. In his remarks at Friday’s benefit, Yee hinted at his frustration at not being able to speak about what happened to him.

“An old Chinese proverb says patience is power,” said Yee. “With patience the mulberry leaf becomes silk. With patience and God willing, you will be able to hear my side of the story.”

About 270 people gathered June 25 at the Grand Harmony Restaurant on Mott St. for the benefit, which was organized by a group of Yee supporters, the Justice for James Yee Ad Hoc Committee.

Organizers said they believe the case was based mostly on anti-Asian and anti-Islamic bias.

“James Yee would not have been targeted if there weren’t this heightened hysteria against Muslims,” said Wayne Luu, a spokesperson for the committee. “What we need to see is that none of us are safe.”

Chung Lee, the son of Dr. Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese-American scientist who was accused of spying for China several years ago, told the audience that Yee’s case recalled that of his father’s.

“This evening has a familiar feel,” said Lee who recalled how his father was kept in solitary confinement for nine months before he was released when the most serious charges against him were dropped. “It’s easy for us as Asian Americans to assume a passive role and just work hard. Meanwhile, history repeats itself with cases like my father’s and Captain Yee’s. More of us need to be politically active and concerned.”

Joseph Yee, James Yee’s father, recalled his son’s life journey starting in New Jersey, where as a “typical American boy” he played soccer. As an adult, he went to Syria to study the Islamic faith after deciding to convert from Lutheranism. “He asked me and my wife about it,” the elder Yee recalled. “We told him it was his choice.” The son later returned to the United States with a Syrian wife and became one of the U.S. Army’s first Muslim chaplains.

Joseph Yee described a letter the family received praising James from his son’s superior officer, Maj. Gen Geoffrey Miller, who was then commander of the Guantanamo camp. Miller was later sent to Iraq and oversaw Abu Ghriab prison, where numerous photos depicting prisoner abuse were taken. “Miller wrote a letter to us saying we should be proud of him,” said Yee. “This was the same General Miller who put him in solitary confinement.”

Yee said his son had received an “exemplary” evaluation of his performance as Guantanamo chaplain.

“The date was September 8, 2003,” said Yee. “He was arrested Sept. 10, 2003. Does that make any sense?”

“General Miller said we can be proud of him and we are,” Yee continued. “He has held his head high and survived this horrendous treatment.”

Yee then offered a toast to his son. “May we get an apology from the Army and an investigation as to why this happened and a lifting of the gag order so he can give his side of the story,” he said, drawing applause from the room.

When James Yee took the stage following his father and began his own remarks, perhaps cognizant of the gag order, he carefully stressed that he was appearing as an individual and not as a representative of the armed services.

“I am here as James Yusef Yee, not in any official capacity as chaplain in the U.S. military or as a soldier in the U.S. military,” he said. “I am here as an individual.”

In addition to thanking his supporters he also thanked his parents and presented them with a framed photo of himself in his military uniform.

Among those who attended the event was New York City Councilmember John Liu, who in May introduced a resolution that was adopted by the City Council calling for federal investigation into the government’s handling of Yee’s case.

“We still need action from the federal government, an apology and an admission of wrongdoing,” Liu said as he was leaving the event. “We also want reparations for the onerous expenses they have incurred.”

“What happened to James Yee is lamentably similar to what happened to Captain Jim Wang in the U.S. Air Force 12 years ago and Dr. Wen Ho Lee’s case,” said Liu. “When something goes wrong they have to find a scapegoat and all too often that scapegoat is an Asian American.”

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