By Alex Distefano
As President Obama is now settled into his second term in office, the crucial issues of the day still seem to revolve around gun control legislation, immigration reform and, of course, our economy.
But, according to former U.S. Army Capt. James Yee, the American public seems to have collectively forgotten about a couple of issues that were seething with controversy during the Bush Administration: torture, and the indefinite detainment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
Yee is no stranger when it comes to this topic.
“The issue of torture is once again coming up, because of the new film, Zero Dark Thirty,” Yee tells the Weekly. “This film depicts several horrendous scenes of torture, which were supposedly used to capture and kill Osama Bin Laden. But people need to know this stuff is real, and not just some big Hollywood movie; most people don’t think about Guantanamo, and most people I have met think it’s been closed since Obama came into office, and nothing could be further from the truth.”
Yee—who converted to Islam and a graduate of West Point—is a third generation Chinese American, with family ties to the military that go back to WWII. In 2002, he was assigned by the U.S. government to be a Muslim chaplain at Gitmo, which at one time held nearly 700 prisoners of war, or “enemy combatants” as they are sometimes referred to.
According to Yee—who spent more than six months at Guantanamo, directly interacting with the all-male prisoners, ages 12 to 80—those incarcerated at the base came from some 40 Middle Eastern countries, all captured in the aftermath of 9/11 and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At first, Yee says that he helped to educate soldiers and others in the military and government as to the teachings of Islam. He emphasized religious tolerance, peace and understanding of the faith. He helped to ensure that prisoners were given Qurans, allowed to pray and had access to halal (meals that follow Islam’s dietary restrictions) meals. But, according to Yee, as time progressed he noticed that prisoners were being treated inhumanely and being abused outside the protection of our traditional system of justice. The prisoners had very little access to attorneys or even their families in some cases. They were not given their constitutional rights to a fair trial or due process under the law, according to Yee.
Yee—who says his experiences scarred him for life—detailed systematic abuse at the hands of guards, even to the point of using religion and sex as a weapon against the prisoners. He recalled seeing many prisoners being forced to sit in a mock Satanic circle on the floor in shackles, while being told that Allah was no longer their God. He also witnessed on more than one occasion a copy of the Quran being kicked to the floor and ripped to pieces.
“This abuse also included sexual humiliation that is too graphic to go into,” Yee says. “It was all a psychological operation, which was used to break down the prisoners’ will. The intelligence officers thought it would help to gather information during interrogations, but I found it to be counter productive. There was so much rampant abuse going on at Guantanamo that could be considered torture.”
Things took a drastic turn for the worse in 2003. Yee was on a leave from his work in Cuba. He found himself arrested and taken into custody by the U.S. government in Florida, and being charged with a series of felonies, including espionage, aiding the enemy and treason, which were leaked to the media before Yee was even charged. Yee was painted as a traitor, accused of being sympathetic to the enemy, and even threatened with the death penalty if convicted.
“I was put in shackles at the waist and handcuffed: both my hands and feet were bound,” he says. “I experienced a form of sensory deprivation that was used against the prisoners in Cuba. I was blindfolded, had tight ear muffs put over me and flown to a Navy brig in South Carolina for solitary confinement.”
Yee spent an agonizing 76 days in isolation.
“I was just thankful to be alive and breathing, and that I was not beaten to a bloody pulp, like some of the prisoners at Guantanamo,” Yee says of his ordeal.
“The entire thing to me was absurd,” he says. “I was never let out of my chains for the 76 days, and am still shocked that I was treated worse than the prisoners in Guantanamo.”
After months of pre-trial hearings, all charges were dropped and his military record was wiped clean. Oddly, Yee received an honorable discharge.
Yee remains dumbfounded that he never received an apology from the government.
He is the first to admit that some might think he is paranoid—but not without reason.
“I fear that my emails and phone calls are monitored, and I think for me it’s just part of my reality,” he says. “This is post 9/11; these kinds of things are taking place. Whether it’s legal or constitutional, people need to know. The government is spying on Muslims and others, and we need to stop ignoring it.”
Yee will discuss his experiences today at Cal State San Bernardino during a presentation called “Islamophobia in America.” The event is open to the public.