The American Army's Muslim chaplain who ministered to so-called enemy combatants at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba has been arrested and detained, apparently on suspicion that he provided aid and comfort to potential terrorists.
James Yee, 35, an Army captain, has been held since 10 September at a Navy brig in South Carolina. Whether he had been charged was not clear from reports, but a spokesman at the US Southern Command, responsible for overseeing the Guantanamo Bay base, said he had been granted access to military lawyers. Under US military law - assuming he is to be prosecuted - a prisoner must be granted trial within 120 days of being arrested.
Although details were still sketchy, Mr Yee's arrest prompted an outcry among American Muslims who immediately seized on the Catch-22 circular logic of a chaplain being arrested for doing, on the face of it, precisely what his job required: providing encouragement and spiritual comfort to the prisoners in his charge.
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American Islamic Relations said: "There are those in our society who love to question the patriotism of American Islamics and this, unfortunately, will give them ammunition to do that, no matter what the facts of the case are."
Officially, members of the military and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which contributed to the case, refused to disclose any details about Captain Yee. One law enforcement source, however, told The New York Times that the investigation began before his latest trip to Guantanamo. Captain Yee was searched when he arrived back at the naval air station in Jacksonville, Florida, and was found to have sketches of the prisoners' facilities in his luggage.
That, various US newspapers reported yesterday, might form the basis of a charge of espionage. Lawyers familiar with previous cases involving the violation of secrecy or espionage laws - notably the aggressive, but baseless, prosecution of the Los Alamos nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee - say the FBI and other government agencies often fail to distinguish between non-malicious handling of classified documents and actual espionage. Thus, they said, prisoner locations at Guantanamo might well be classified, but that does not mean Captain Yee had them mapped for any reason other than to help to find his way around.
The arrest is part of a pattern since 11 September 2001 of official hostility towards anyone in direct contact with suspected members of al-Qa'ida, enemy fighters or other detainees. The Justice Department now reserves the right to eavesdrop on conversations between terrorism suspects and their lawyers, in apparent violation of the constitutional guarantee of lawyer-client privilege.
Lynne Stewart, a US lawyer, is herself soon to stand trial on terrorism charges. She was arrested shortly after 11 September on the basis that she may have passed on dangerous messages from her client, the blind Egyptian cleric Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is in prison for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre.
Captain Yee is a West Point graduate who converted to Islam shortly after the Gulf War in 1991. Changing his first name to Yousef, he left the military to study his new religion in Syria and returned after four years as an imam. He rejoined the Army in the late 1990s as a chaplain, serving first at the Fort Lewis base in Washington state and then, as of 10 months ago, at Guantanamo Bay. He kept a flat in Miami, which was searched by the FBI after his arrest.
He was interviewed frequently on Muslim issues within the armed forces and beyond, and issued many unequivocal condemnations of violence. "An act of terrorism, the taking of innocent civilian lives, is prohibited by Islam, and whoever has done this needs to be brought to justice, whether he is Muslim or not," he said in late 2001.
His work at Guantanamo has presumably included an interest in several dozen suicide attempts among the prisoners. Earlier this year, he told the BBC: "I like to think that whatever I can do, whether in their personal situation or help with them being here in any way, that I have a positive effect on their life."
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