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Is It Criminal to Be a Muslim Civilian or Military Prison Chaplain?

by Matthew T. Clarke

It may not yet be criminal to be a Muslim prison chaplain, but they are certainly being singled out and subjected to a heightened level of scrutiny in the New York, federal and military prison systems. This point was driven home by the arrest on September 10, 2003, of Yousef Yee, a Muslim Army Chaplain at Camp Delta, the military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where alleged members of Al-Qaida and their Taliban and their collaborators are held in isolation, torment and secrecy. On July 23, 2003, Ahmad Al-Halabi, 25, an Air Force interpreter at the camp was also arrested on espionage charges.

Yee, who was returning to the U S. on personal leave, was stopped and searched by U. S. Customs officials at the Jacksonville (Florida) Naval Air Station after disembarking the military fight from Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. At that time, Yee was in possession of a sketch of the layout of some of the Camp Delta cells, the names of the prisoners in the cells, and the names of which translator is to be used for which prisoner. Such information is considered classified as the military takes great care to ensure that not even the names of the persons being held are known outside of Camp Delta.

Yee, the 35-year-old son of Chinese immigrants, was born James Yee and raised Lutheran, but converted to Islam after assignment to Saudi Arabia following the Gulf War in 1991. A West Point graduate, Yee dropped out of the Army to spend four years studying Arabic and Islam in Syria and return as one of the few Muslim chaplains in the Army. During his studies, he changed his name to Yousef and married a Syrian.

People who know Yee state that he has always opposed terrorism, preaching that it is against Islam and that whoever commits an act of terrorism must be brought to justice (how military chaplains reconcile their religion with their service to U.S. imperialism is another topic). He is known as an upbeat man of strong convictions who always gave 100% of himself. However, Yee did not see eye-to-eye with the military intelligence interrogators who wanted absolute control of the prison environment. For instance, Yee managed to institute the playing of recorded traditional Muslim calls to prayer multiple times a day. Interrogators also complained of Yee's one-on-one meetings with prisoners as interfering with their attempts to achieve absolute control over the prisoners.

Initially, the government released reports that Yee was suspected of being a traitor. However, it now appears that the documents were merely his notes in which he tried to keep clear who was whom among the prisoners and which translator to contact for a given prisoner. This is no mean feat as Camp Delta has around 660 prisoners from 42 countries who speak 17 different languages. Yee was held in isolation at a Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina, for 76 days, the same place that the Army is holding Yaser Esam Hamdi, an American-born Saudi former Camp Delta prisoner who is accused of fighting with the Taliban, and Jose Padilla, an American who converted to Islam in prison and was initially accused of being "the 20th 9-11 hijacker" but is currently accused of planning to explode a radioactive "dirty" bomb in the U.S.

On October 10, 2003, Yee was charged with only the minor offenses of dereliction of duty and disobeying a general order for transporting classified documents without the proper cover and taking classified materials to his home.

Yee was released from the Navy brig on November 25, 2003. Military law experts unanimously agree that this meant he was no longer suspected of aiding terrorists. However, rather than dropping charges against Yee, the prosecution filed new charges of adultery, storing pornography on his work computer, and making a false statement to investigators.

At a December 8, 2003, Article 32 hearing (military equivalent of a grand jury) held at Fort Benning in Georgia, customs inspector Sean Rafferty testified via cell phone that Yee was carrying a typewritten list of the prisoners detained at Camp Delta and their interrogators when he was arrested. He also testified that the document was not labeled "secret" or "classified." However, most of the testimony focused on charges of adultery. After being given immunity, Navy Lt. Karyn Wallace, 36, testified that she had "maybe 20" sexual encounters with Yee while she was posted as a health and safety officer at Guantanamo. Adultery carries up to a year in jail, but only if it undermined military order, security, or discipline.

Eugene Fidell, Yee's defense attorney, bristled at restrictions that allowed at least twenty prosecution witnesses to testify via telephone. Calling for the dismissal of the charges against Yee, Fidell noted that this Article 32 hearing had been delayed because the prosecutors had mishandled classified materials, turning them over to the defense.

"If they don't know what is classified, how's my client supposed to know? They're the prosecutor and security guys, we're just a chaplain," said Fidell.

If convicted of all six charges against him, Yee faced a maximum of 13-years in prison, a dishonorable discharge, and loss of pay. However, the more typical penalty for such minor offenses would range from reprimands to dismissal from the armed forces.

By January, 2004, all charges against Yee had been dropped and he was once more free. In the meantime, the torture and murder of prisoners at Guantanamo and American military run prisons in Iraq had become public knowledge.

In December, 2003, the espionage charges against Al-Halabi were dropped. On May 12, 2004, the case against Al-Halabi collapsed completely when military judge Barbara Brand ordered his immediate release from prison pending the outcome of his court martial. At court hearings the defense presented evidence that government investigators drank beer as they opened boxes of evidence supposedly crucial to the case and then covered up their actions with posed photos. The shift came when Suzan Sultan, a military investigator no longer in the military who had worked on the case, came forward to Al-Halabi's defense team and gave a 74 page statement documenting fabrication of evidence and testimony, the withholding of material evidence and other criminal mishandling of the case. Prosecutors denied any wrongdoing. Al-Halabi is working as a supply clerk on Travis Air Force Base in California pending the completion of his trial.

On May 26, 2004, Air Force Technical Sergeant Marc Palmosina, the lead investigator who oversaw the purported "investigation" of Al-Halabi was criminally charged by the Air Force with multiple counts of raping and sodomizing children and failing to safeguard classified documents. Prosecutors have motions to omit any mention of Palmosina's legal misdeeds from Al-Halabi's trial.

This is especially so in Al-Halabi's case. Donald Rehkopf, one of Al-Hamadi's lawyers, said that on two occasions Al-Hamadi complained to his military superiors about the conditions under which the detainees were being held. Military regulations require that human rights violations be reported. Instead, Rehkopf notes that the Air Force is using Al-Halabi's complaint about the prisoners' mistreatment as evidence that he is "anti-American." Afterall, what patriotic American would possibly question the torture of prisoners?

"I don't think there's anything sinister or illegal about what he did. I think the First Amendment sort of covers that. Free speech hasn't gone out the window just yet," Rehkopf said.

Yee and al-Halabi's actions may indeed be explained by other less-than-treasonous intentions. They may have simply become sympathetic to the prisoners and desired to get word out to their families that they were being held at Camp Delta's prison. The sympathy may have been generated by the institutionalized isolation and psychological and physical torture of the prisoners.

Camp X-Ray, the first Guantanamo Bay prison for prisoners captured in Afghanistan, was opened February 2, 2002. The facilities there consisted of 300 tiny 6 feet by 8 feet kennel-like cages with no walls in blocks of 10 or 20. Prisoners were not allowed to talk, stand, or walk around the cage. They were given no exercise and only allowed to shower for one minute once a week. The only amenities in the cell were two blankets and a prayer mat. International pressure by human rights organizations led to the construction of more humane quarters protected from the elements.

In April, 2002, the 300 prisoners were transferred to the newly-constructed Camp Delta, which now houses around 660 prisoners and has a maximum capacity of 1,000. Camp Delta's cells have walls, a toilet, a sink, and a bunk.

The sole stated goal of Camp Delta's prison is the collection of military intelligence. A number of police and intelligence professionals seriously doubt whether the facility is succeeding in its stated goal. From its inception, intelligence officials structured the prison to keep constant psychological pressure on the prisoners in an attempt to coerce them into cooperating. This began with the crafting of the designation "illegal combatant," a term which has no meaning in international law. The Geneva Convention, which covers the treatment of prisoners of war and conquered civilian populations, grants rights to all categories of people from a conquered nation. In an attempt to circumvent those rights, the U.S. invented a new unrecognized category not mentioned in the Geneva Convention. The idea of a prisoner without a legal status is rejected by the International Committee of the Red Cross and other human rights organizations, but the U.S. has stuck to the legal fiction.

The methods used by Camp Delta officials to coerce cooperation start with isolation and total control of the environment. The names of prisoners are not released. The prisoners are kept guessing how long they will be imprisoned, but are always reminded that cooperation leads to improved conditions and a quicker expectation of release. Prisoners who cooperate receive more exercise time, more or better food, or the coveted move to a 100-man medium custody dormitory, all the while hoping that they might earn their release one day. Meanwhile, they must deal with incessant boredom and the knowledge that not even their families know their fate while receiving the intended message: "If you don't talk, you might never get out, even if you are never charged with a crime." The Red Cross has protested this treatment because of a serious psychological deterioration it is causing to the prisoners.

The psychological torture seems to be working. Even though only 64 prisoners have been releasedmost to further detention in other countriesover 80% of the prisoners are cooperating according to military officials. However, a dark downside of the continuous psychological stress is the number of suicide attempts, 34 attempts by 20 prisoners, one of whom suffered permanent brain damage: Another possibility is that the 80% who are cooperating are not terrorists or important Taliban officials and have little to tell, but are telling all they know or what their captors want to hear. Since the prison has tighter security then Auschwitz, it is impossible to know.

As recent revelations from the Abu Gharib prison in Iraq reveal, when psychological torture is not sufficient to induce cooperation, beatings, electrocution and other old fashioned methods long used by the United States military in counter insurgency wars are quick to be utilized. The isolation of the prisoners makes abuse inevitable and likely. Afterall, if the prisoners are not being mistreated, why hold them in total isolation with no right to redress?

One must question the propriety of holding prisoners without access to attorneys, consular officials, reporters, courts or even the charges against them. This violates the most fundamental rights guaranteed by the U. S. Constitution and international law.

Meanwhile, the witch hunt for terrorist sympathizers among Muslim prison clergy continues with New York state conducting a purge of Muslim prison chaplains [PLN, Sept. 2003, p. 20], and the military and federal prison system looking into both its Muslim chaplains and the organizations which recommended them. Thorough background checks have already been conducted on the 65 contract and 120 volunteer Muslim chaplains who serve the 9,500 Muslim federal prisoners in response to the fear of terrorist sympathizers organizing a fifth column in the U.S prison system.

Even though a building has been renovated and a courtroom prepared for military tribunals (officially called "commissions"), no Camp Delta prisoner has yet been tried. Ironically, even without trials, Camp Delta may be accomplishing its purpose. Military officials report that just the threat of being sent to Cuba is enough to get many prisoners being held elsewhere to cooperate.

The prosecution of people like Yee and Al-Halabi, who by all accounts do not appear to be opponents of U.S. imperialism, and who also do not appear to have actually committed any illegal acts, serves as an intimidation tactic to any military personnel who may be inclined to speak publicly about the torture and abuses occurring in U.S. military prisons. However, in that sense the prosecutions seem to have failed since it was a Military Policeman outraged by the torture and abuse at Abu Gharib who exposed that cesspool of inhumanity. Just as it was an American serviceman who exposed the My Lai massacre in Viet Nam (Seymour Hersh is the journalist who broke both stories). The military knows that while it has the power to commit unspeakable atrocities, it can do so in secret only when the people carrying out the beatings, murders and massacres are willing to do so in silence. Prosecutions like Yee's serve as a warning that any breaking of this code of silence will be punished.

Sources: The Sun, Columbus Dispatch, USA Today, Seattle Times, AP, Time, Washington Post, Counter Punch, Independent (UK), Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, Christian Science. Monitor, New York Daily News, New York Times.

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