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Jailed Chaplain Decries Treatment

Army captain, a Muslim who worked with terrorist suspects at the U.S. prison in Cuba, says he's been blocked from practicing his faith.

November 25, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Muslim chaplain charged with mishandling classified material at the U.S. prison camp in Cuba said he has been held in harsh conditions, barred from practicing his Islamic faith and deprived of his legal right to a speedy trial.

Army Capt. James Joseph Yee, a West Point graduate, speaking for the first time since his arrest in September, laid out his complaints in an unusual letter that his lawyer sent Monday to President Bush.

Yee and his lawyer are demanding that the president release him from the brig at a Navy installation in South Carolina, where he is confined with terrorist suspects considered among the country's most dangerous, and that he be returned to his normal duty status until the case against him is resolved.

"Capt. Yee is a United States citizen and service member," his lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell, said in the letter to Bush.

"He is entitled to the full panoply of constitutional protections, including the right to a fair and speedy trial. This case, however, is moving at a glacial pace, and he is being treated as if he were an enemy combatant rather than a commissioned officer."

But Capt. Tom Crosson, a spokesman for the military's Southern Command, which operates the prison for terrorism suspects at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, said the case is proceeding normally.

"I can't speak to what the brig does in South Carolina, or what type of confinement they are holding him in," Crosson said. "But they are still within the correct time frame."

Crosson said that Yee was taken into custody Sept. 10, and that under military law a court-martial should be held by Jan. 10, or within 120 days of his arrest. In addition, he said, there was a 45-day delay in the case once Yee was arrested.

"So this is running its course," Crosson said.

In the letter, Fidell said that for the first six weeks after Yee's arrest, he "was kept in isolation in a small cell for about 23 hours a day. He was required to wear hand- and leg-irons when leaving his cell ... and he was forced to endure several other harsh and illegal conditions on confinement." He said guards no longer recognized Yee as an Army captain and instead referred to him derisively as an enlistee.

Fidell said Yee was not given a religious calendar or prayer rug in his cell, and that the brig staff "refused to tell him the time of day or the direction of Mecca, thereby needlessly interfering with his daily prayers and religious practices." He also said Yee was deprived of mail and not allowed to watch television or have reading materials other than the Koran.

Even now, Fidell said, Yee is allowed one censored newspaper a day, and can make only two 15-minute phone calls a day to his lawyers or his family.

Noting that he has been charged with two violations of mishandling classified information, Fidell said such treatment "is totally wrong and unfair." Normally, he said, military personnel with similar charges are released pending their court-martial.

"If everyone who failed to safeguard classified information according to the letter of the regulation were imprisoned," Fidell said, "the brigs would be at capacity and then some."

Instead, he said, his client is being held with some of the nation's most notorious terrorist suspects, including Jose Padilla, who is accused of plotting to explode a radioactive "dirty bomb" in the U.S., and declared enemy combatants Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri and Yaser Esam Hamdi.

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