Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

What I Saw at Guantanamo: In an Interview, Capt. James Yee Talks about His Days as the Facility's Chaplain

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

What I Saw at Guantanamo: In an Interview, Capt. James Yee Talks about His Days as the Facility's Chaplain

Article excerpt

Editor's note: As one of the U.S. Army's few Muslim chaplains, Capt. James Yee thought he was serving both God and country at Guantanamo Bay. But in September 2003, two days after receiving an excellent evaluation, Chaplain Yee was arrested, charged with espionage and thrown into solitary confinement for 76 days. When he left the Army in 2005 after all charges were dropped, he received a medal. He recounts his journey from Muslim American poster boy to "enemy of the state" in his memoir, For God and Country. Capt. Yee was interviewed by Sandip Roy, host of "UpFront," New America Media's radio program on KAL W 91.7-FM in San Francisco.

Sandip Roy: As chaplain at Guantanamo Bay you served not just the soldiers but also 660 prisoners. What did you have to do for them?

Capt. Yee: I was an adviser to the command on the unique religious paradigm in Guantanamo, where all the prisoners are Muslim. I had open access to them and I would talk to them daffy, understand their concerns and relay that information to the command so some of the tensions in the cell block between soldiers and prisoners could be relieved.

Donald Rumsfeld has called the prisoners some of the "worst of the worst." How did you find them?

I disagree with that characterization. Clearly many of them are innocent. At least three were between 12 and 14 [years old]. There are a dozen Uighurs from western China. Some of them have been deemed to be not enemy combatants by the Pentagon's own review board.

I saw prisoners who were so despondent they would no longer eat. At least two were permanently in the hospital being force-fed through a tube. One prisoner attempted suicide and ended up in a coma.

There were also mass suicide attempts. A prisoner would attempt suicide, the guards would unlock his cell and take him down, and the medics would come. Fifteen minutes later another prisoner would attempt suicide, and this would go on for hours. They were demanding the commanding general apologize for the abuse of the Quran.

Did you see any abuse?

As a chaplain I was able to ensure some things like halal meals, the call to prayer, the painted arrow pointing to Mecca. But the Quran was desecrated. In the conduct of searches, it often ended up ripped. There were confirmed incidents where interrogators threw the Quran on the floor and stepped on it.

When the Newsweek report about the Quran desecration outraged the entire Muslim world, the Pentagon responded by showing that there was a policy in place that gave proper guidance on how to correctly handle the Quran. What the Pentagon never said was that the chaplain it had accused of spying and threatened with the death penalty was the one who authored that policy.

The government says the war on terrorism is not a war on Islam, but you write that's not how it felt on most days at Guantanamo.

There was really strong anti-Muslim hostility directed not just toward the prisoners but also to the patriotic Muslim Americans serving there. I wasn't the only one singled out. …

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