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Army Chaplain in Guantanamo Case Is Charged

Capt. James Yee, who served Muslim detainees at the camp, is accused of disobeying orders.

October 11, 2003|Richard A. Serrano | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A Muslim chaplain who ministered to detainees at the U.S. naval base on Guantanamo Bay was charged Friday with disobeying orders by taking classified material home, becoming the third staff member to face criminal charges in a widening investigation into security breaches at the prison in Cuba.

Army Capt. James Joseph Yee, who served at Camp Delta starting in November, also faces a second charge of "wrongfully transporting classified material without the proper security containers or covers."

Military officials at the Pentagon and the Southern Command headquarters in Miami, which oversees the Guantanamo Bay detention center, said more criminal charges may be filed as the probe continues.

Yee was arrested Sept. 10 at the naval air station in Jacksonville, Fla. He was apprehended after arriving on a flight from Guantanamo Bay, where he was the lead Muslim chaplain for about 660 Al Qaeda and Taliban detainees.

Master Sgt. Jose Ruiz said Yee was charged with two counts of violating Article 92 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice by "failing to obey a lawful general order" when he allegedly went home with secret material from Camp Delta.

"These are the guidelines that safeguard our nation's security," Ruiz said. "There was sufficient evidence to charge him with that."

Yee is being held at the Navy brig in Charleston, S.C., and officials said he has maintained his innocence.

At Guantanamo Bay, he was for 10 months the only chaplain ministering to the Muslim detainees, and other chaplains said he had ready access to the detainees because of their shared faith and his ability to speak Arabic. He had spent four years studying in Syria.

Father Raymond Tetreault, a Roman Catholic chaplain from Rhode Island who served with Yee at Camp Delta, said he was surprised to learn of the arrest of the man who ministered to the Muslim detainees.

"He was their imam," Tetreault said, "but he was first a Christian born in New Jersey.

"He told me he had been in Germany in 1991, and after the Persian Gulf War his unit was assigned to Saudi Arabia. That was in 1992 and that's when he converted to Islam. Then he left the Army, went to Damascus, and then later reentered the service."

Although the military has not linked the three arrested staff members to an organized effort, Tetreault said, "You would presume they knew each other."

According to the official charge sheets, Yee converted the material for his personal use between Nov. 30, 2002, and Sept. 9 of this year. The criminal specifications state that he was "wrongfully taking classified material to a housing unit" and that he was "wrongfully transporting classified information without the proper locking containers or covers."

A 35-year-old West Point graduate, Yee was questioned for several hours after his arrest, especially about why he had diagrams of Camp Delta and other documents in his possession.

As the main chaplain for Muslim detainees, he was often quoted in the media. He talked about rearranging the meal schedule for detainees so they could observe the daylight fast during Ramadan, and he presented detainees with certificates verifying that the meat they were served was prepared according to Islamic strictures.

He also would play a recorded version of the Muslim call to prayer five times a day in the prison, using loudspeakers to make sure it reached all the Muslim captives. And he ministered to a small group of American troops who are Muslims and held services Friday evenings in a converted day-care room specially set aside at the base's nondenominational chapel.

"He had a separate room for Muslim services," Tetreault said. "There were no icons or pictures of any kind on the walls. In fact we covered the walls with sheets so that there were no pictures.

"When they pray, Chaplain Yee said, they are to have no distractions."

The other two defendants, both Arabic linguists, include Air Force Senior Airman Ahmad I. Al-Halabi, who also was arrested at the Jacksonville air station after a flight from Guantanamo Bay. He is charged with multiple counts of espionage and attempting to aid the enemy by seeking to deliver classified material from Camp Delta to Syria.

Confined in the brig at Vandenberg Air Force Base, he is awaiting a decision on whether he should be court-martialed.

The third defendant, Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, was a private contract worker at Camp Delta. He was arrested at Boston's Logan International Airport and charged with giving false information to authorities after at least one computer disc in his bags was found to have classified material.

He is being prosecuted in the civilian court system.

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