Army Capt. James Yee had just arrived at the U.S. prison for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay when he got his first hint of trouble.
The man Yee would replace as Muslim chaplain showed him around the high-security base on the eastern edge of Cuba, and gave him a warning.
“This is not a friendly environment for Muslims, and I don’t just mean for the prisoners,” Yee recalled hearing from the outgoing chaplain. “You need to watch your back.”
The exchange, which Yee recounts in a new book on his experiences at Guantanamo, would prove to be prophetic.
The new chaplain soon grew increasingly disturbed by the treatment of prisoners and what he perceived as military hostility to Muslim personnel at the base. Yee’s biggest shock came later, when he was arrested on suspicion of espionage and held in solitary confinement for 76 days.
The case unraveled and authorities eventually dismissed the charges. Yee received an honorable discharge from the service and now lives in Washington state, but he was left with deep concerns about the treatment of prisoners in the U.S. war on terrorism and anger over his own treatment at the hands of military authorities.
“What happened to me was a gross miscarriage of justice,” he said Tuesday in a phone interview from New York, where he was promoting his book, “For God and Country,” which went on sale this week. “I don’t want what happened to me to ever happen to anyone else.”
Since the dismissal of the criminal charges in March 2004, Yee, 37, has appeared at events around the country to promote racial and religious tolerance, but he has avoided discussing details about his experiences in Guantanamo, his arrest and eventual exoneration.
Concerns emerged early
In the book, Yee wrote that his concern about the conditions at the prison developed within weeks of his arrival in November 2002 after he became acquainted with the prisoners — who confided in him because of their shared faith.
“I had the unique position of being very close to the detainees, on a personal level, a level no one else had with the detainees,” Yee said.
The guards would harass prisoners, mock their religion and use unnecessary force at the slightest infraction. The detainees, he wrote, were also not provided with enough books or other activities, given inadequate opportunities to shower considering the harsh tropical heat and subjected to bodily searches that violated their religion.
In response, Army Col. Joseph Curtin said Yee has the right to publish his book but the military would not comment on such a personal account.
Changes made since 2003
The military, however, has made extensive changes to the prison since Yee last saw it in September 2003 and has improved conditions for those prisoners deemed compliant — allowing some to live communally and prepare their own meals. Authorities also have repeatedly said that they investigate allegations of abuse and have disciplined troops when necessary.
At Guantanamo, the U.S. military holds about 500 men suspected of links to terrorism. Four have been charged and legal proceedings against an Australian prisoner, David Hicks, are scheduled to begin next month.
Yee said he believes many of the prisoners — who numbered 660 when he was there — were foot soldiers with “minimal” intelligence value and no connection to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
“The people down in Guantanamo probably know as much about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida ... as any private in the military would know what’s going on inside the Pentagon,” he said.