Being stopped by U.S. Customs officers, accused of espionage and threatened with the death penalty with no evidence for the accusations sounds like an unreal nightmare to some, but Chaplin James Yee said for him it was an all too real reality.
In September 2003, Yee, a Muslim Chaplin for the U.S Army stationed in Guantanamo Bay, was arrested on charges of espionage. Yee’s family and the rest of the world would find out 10 days later of the arrest and his livelihood.
Yee came to CSUN on Wednesday to discuss his experiences and his recently published book, “For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.”
The event was sponsored by the Asian American Studies Department, the Educational Opportunity Program and Project Advocates for Cultural Talk, or ACT, and received support from the College of Humanities Fund for Academic Programming. The event was presented by the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress organization.
“What happened to him can happen to anyone,” said Glenn Omatsu, a professor of Asian American Studies at CSUN and one of the organizers of the event.
Yee felt the charges were ridiculous when he was first arrested, but as things progressed, he became very scared for his life, Omatsu said.
“I was shoved into a back of a truck, had solid black goggles placed over my eyes and industrial ear muffs fastened over my ears,” Yee said. “I didn’t know where I was being taken to.”
Yee said he spent 76 days in jail on accusations of aiding the Taliban. He said he was placed in solitary confinement and questioned about his alleged connection to the Taliban, an Islamic militia. After 76 days, no evidence was found against him and his record was cleared, Yee said.
When he returned to his original post at Guantanamo Bay as the Muslim chaplain, he said U.S. solders referred to him as the “Chinese Taliban,” and in January 2005 he was honorably discharged from the Army.
Yee graduated from West Point in 1990 and served in the U.S. Army in the first Gulf War. At that time he became very interested in the Muslim faith and converted to Islam in 1991. In 1995, he left active duty in the U.S. Army and went on to study the Muslim faith in Syria, because he believed it was the most secular nation.
In 2001, Yee returned to the U.S. Army and became a Muslim Chaplin stationed in Guantanamo Bay. He said he spoke privately to the 660 Muslims in regard to their treatment as prisoners. He also acted as the adviser for the military who held these Muslim prisoners captive.
“I listened to the Muslim prisoners of their account while being interrogated,” Yee said. “The U.S. Army abused the Koran in front of Muslim prisoners in order to get them talk.”
Prisoners were constantly being abused on a daily basis, Yee said.
According to the prison policy in Guantanamo Bay, Yee said, prisoners are allowed to only have one Styrofoam cup in their prison cell. Prisoners who were found having two cups, using one for drinking and the other for cleaning themselves, were accused of having contraband and were punished, he said.
The Initial Response Force was used at the prison in cases of contraband, Yee said. A group of between six and eight soldiers dressed in riot gear forcibly extracted the accused contraband prisoners and placed them in solitary confinement, he said.
“One IRF solider first sprayed pepper spray into the prisoner’s eyes and four to five other soldiers cuffed the prisoner with a zip tie,” Yee said.
Because of the severe stress some prisoners went through, they reverted back to child-like behavior and were placed in designated areas where they drew pictures using crayons and jumped up and down on beds like children, Yee said.
“One prisoner, because of stress, smashed his (own) head into prison cell bars, causing massive bleeding on his forehead,” Yee said.
Stories like these had to be told, he said.
After being released from prison after 76 days and cleared of all charges, Yee said he was read a memorandum and a gag order was placed on him.
“After being honorably discharged, I could finally tell my story,” Yee said.
Yee’s speech at CSUN was very effective and it helped personalize his story for the people attending, said Mark Masaoka, a volunteer coordinator at Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress.
Richard Barkinskiy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.