London, Asharq Al-Awsat- When he speaks today, James Yee, the Chinese American former United States Army captain’s sentences are frequently supported by Quranic verses and prophetic sayings (hadith).
Sheikh Yousef, as he is also known, was dismissed from the US army and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay after being charged with terrorism and espionage but was then released for lack of evidence against him. Embracing Islam in 1991, Yee was a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay during his period of confinement.
Asharq Al-Awsat conducted a phone interview with Yee during his visit to Brighton on the southern coast of England. His visit coincided with the release of four Guantanamo prisoners who were residents in the UK; Libyan-born Omar Deghayes; Algerian Abdel Nour Sameur; Saudi-born Shakir Abdul Rehim Amer, who has since been repatriated to Saudi Arabia, and the Jordanian Jamil al Banna.
Chaplain Yee who is a West Point military academy graduate spent several years in Abu Nour University in Damascus learning about Islam and the Arabic language. There he also met his wife, Hoda, with whom he has a young girl, Sarah.
Yee embraced Islam while serving in Saudi Arabia following the 1991 Gulf War. Yee has also authored the book, ‘For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism under Fire,’ in which he talks about his experience in the American detention camp. The prison management had alleged that Yee was relaying messages from detainees to terrorists at large and accused him of leaking classified military documents outside of Guantanamo.
At the end of 2003, Yee was imprisoned in solitary confinement and was subjected to cruel treatment, in addition to enduring a fierce libel campaign in the media in which he was referred to as the “Chinese Taliban’.
After over a year when evidence proved to be groundless, Yee was released but was never issued an apology.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: What is your opinion of Guantanamo Bay today?
A: Camp Delta in which Al-Qaeda and Taliban detainees are held has revealed a dark side to the war against terrorism and it has also revealed through what is being published worldwide that our reputation as a just state has been deeply affected. The camp in and of itself is a stigma for the US and is responsible for making the majority of Muslims the world over hate America.
Q: What did you witness in the detention camp during your period of service?
A: I saw Muslims who had strayed and were misguided and who had bowed under pressure but I did not encounter any terrorists because the real terrorists were detained elsewhere. I witnessed human rights violations with my own eyes and I once saw a guard rip copies of the Holy Quran.
Q: How many months did you spend as a Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo?
A: Ten months in which I learnt a great deal about the facts and about the way things were from a perspective other than that of the US army.
Q: How many days of imprisonment did you endure before you were proclaimed innocent and released?
A: Ten months in a maximum security prison in South Carolina, of which 76 days were in solitary confinement. It was the same prison in which Saudi-born former US citizen Yasser Hamdi spent three years on account of being an “enemy combatant”.
Q: When were you expelled from the US army, and do you regard this action as an injustice?
A: I was dismissed from the US army service in January 2005 after being cleared of all charges that the military establishment had made against me. I also spent 10 months investigating the suffering of the detainees until the glorious and merciful Allah blessed me with full acquittal. But what grieves me the most is the fact that I never received an apology for what my small family had to endure of psychological suffering and defamation.
Q: What is the purpose of your visit to the UK? And where is your next tour going to be?
A: I came to London for the first time to talk about the American detention camp and the violations that take place within its walls. In 13 days I have given 16 lectures throughout Britain. I have performed this same tour in various American states and I will not stop talking about what the Muslim detainees endure there until the prison is closed down.
Q: Do you recall fellow detainees?
A: I remember a number of Saudi prisoners, including Meshaal, al Dossari and Shakir Abdul Rehim Amer, and the Briton Mouazzam Baig.
Q: What was your advice to the Al-Qaeda and Taliban prisoners in Camp Delta?
A: Patience in the face of adversity and that God will deliver them even if their prison terms are extended. Many of them had memorized the Quran and were knowledgeable about the religion, more so than myself.
Q: Were there Al-Qaeda detainees that were suspicious and fearful of you since you were dressed in US military uniform?
A: At the beginning, prior to my detention, some believed that I was “collaborating with the enemy”. Some believed that I was a Muslim who had betrayed their cause and most of them criticized me for being a committed Muslim, in their view, whilst still wearing US army clothes. I used to answer that by saying, “If I hadn’t been in the US army I would not have been able to come here to try and help you.”
On a daily basis many would ask me when the investigations and interrogation would end and if they would be tried and repatriated and united with their families. These are difficult questions that have no answers but I always used to remind them of Quranic verses such as, “God is with the patient ones”, “With hardship there is facilitation” and “Take recourse in patience and prayer”. I also often recounted prophetic hadiths to encourage them to accept the circumstances they were living.
Q: Why didn’t the Joint Task Force Guantanamo appoint another chaplain for spiritual guidance after you left?
A: Because they are concerned that Muslim preachers could side with the detainees.
Q: Have you performed the five pillars of Islam?
A: Yes, and I have performed the Hajj pilgrimage in the holy land twice, the last of which was in 1995.