God and Country Clash at Gitmo | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

God and Country Clash at Gitmo

Former U.S. Army Chaplain James Yee never doubted he was serving his country when he advocated for respectful treatment of Muslim detainees at Guantánamo Bay, a U.S. military detention center in Cuba for suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Yee believed he was upholding the nation's founding principle of religious freedom when he sought to prevent soldiers from treating Islam with contempt.

"I confirm that the Holy Koran is being desecrated at Guantánamo," Yee told a crowd of 100 at the University of Pittsburgh on Feb. 2. "It was urinated on by personnel. I witnessed how the guards handled the Holy Koran when they searched the cell. They violently shook the Koran, thinking that something dangerous is going to fall out. Nothing ever fell out."

Yee recounted his struggles as a Muslim chaplain for 10 months at Gitmo, which culminated with his 2003 arrest. Yee was initially charged with spying, espionage and aiding the Gitmo prisoners, and says he found himself strapped in a "three-piece suit" of chains and locks, "fearing that my rights would be stripped like those down at Guantánamo."

The federal charges were later dropped. As a result, Yee said, he was never able to learn what evidence the government intended to present.

A spokeswoman for the Pentagon, Cynthia Smith, referred questions to the Army, whose media representatives could not be reached for comment by City Paper's deadline. A Congressional investigation into Yee's arrest is pending, and at the Feb. 2 gathering Yee repeated his demand for an apology from the government. He said he received an honorable discharge and a commendation medal for his service.

Yee has been on a book tour for his memoir, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire, for more than a year, describing how he witnessed U.S. military and intelligence personnel trying to break the prisoners.

Yee told his Army superiors that the tough tactics of insulting the prisoners' faith was counter-productive, helping to stir up a prisoner revolt. It certainly didn't help with U.S. intelligence gathering, he added.

Yee believes that he was targeted both for his efforts to improve the treatment of the Muslim prisoners, and for his ethnicity. Born and raised as a third-generation Chinese-American Lutheran, he says he learned later that Gitmo personnel had called him "Chinese Taliban" behind his back.

Ishfaq Ahmad, a Muslim from McCandless in attendance, said Yee's description of faith-trampling at Gitmo upset him. "We need to voice our concern," Ahmad said. Unless "more people question these practices, this kind of incident will keep happening."

For his part, Yee has never regretted speaking out. He concluded: "It's our forefathers that said dissent is the best form of patriotism."

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By Mars Johnson