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Charges Against Chaplain Dismissed

April 15, 2004|John Hendren | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Army on Wednesday dismissed all charges against a Muslim chaplain who was initially investigated for espionage, held in a military jail for 76 days, but eventually convicted only of minor administrative charges of adultery and downloading pornography onto his government computer.

Army Gen. James T. Hill, head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, overturned on appeal the nonjudicial conviction and written reprimand handed down March 22 to Capt. James Joseph Yee. The decision marked the apparent end to a high-profile case in which critics accused the military of overzealousness and anti-Muslim fervor in its pursuit of the Bush administration's war on terrorism.

When he was arrested in September, Yee was the Muslim chaplain at the detention center on the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where more than 600 suspected members of Al Qaeda and the Taliban are being held as alleged enemy combatants.

"While I believe that Chaplain Yee's misconduct was wrong, I do not believe, given the extreme notoriety of his case in the news media, that further stigmatizing Chaplain Yee would serve a just and fair purpose," Hill said. "I believe in justice and I believe in fairness, and given all that has transpired, in all fairness I believe I have given Chaplain Yee justice."

Yee's lawyer, Eugene R. Fidell of Washington, expressed disappointment that Hill had left a cloud over his client and had declined to offer the apology the chaplain had sought.

"He's pronounced him guilty in the very course of finding him not guilty," said Fidell, a military-law expert.

Fidell contended that Army Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, then the commander of Joint Task Force Guantanamo, "erred gravely in putting Chaplain Yee in confinement, but he continued the error for an unconscionable period of time.... It's disturbing and there's a sense in which I'm afraid the Army, or at least this part of the Army, still doesn't get it."

Fidell has compared the case to the prosecution of Wen Ho Lee, who was indicted in 1999 for allegedly mishandling classified information at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Fidell said he hoped another commander, perhaps higher up the chain of command, would apologize for what he described as a zealous and unnecessarily embarrassing prosecution. Yee and his wife were compelled to watch in court as a woman, described as Yee's mistress, gave intimate details of her alleged affair with the chaplain.

No reprimand will appear on Yee's record, but Fidell said his client's future in the military was unclear.

A 1990 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., Yee, 36, was raised as a Lutheran. He converted to Islam about the time he served in Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and is one of only 17 Muslim chaplains in the armed forces.

Yee was arrested Sept. 10 at Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida and immediately placed in confinement without bail. The Army initially attempted to connect him to a purported spy ring at Guantanamo, but could not substantiate espionage allegations.

Early in the investigation, a newspaper report, citing sources close to the case, said Yee was likely to face charges for which he might face the death penalty. Instead, he was charged with mishandling classified information and violating military law by committing adultery and downloading pornography onto his government computer. He was released from military custody in November. In dropping those criminal charges March 19, Army officials indicated the decision was based on the military's reluctance to make sensitive information public.

Yee was convicted in a nonjudicial proceeding of minor administrative charges involving the adultery and pornography accusations. He has since been reassigned to Ft. Lewis, Wash.

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