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Wednesday, November 26, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Muslim chaplain let out of prison, faces new charges
An Army Muslim chaplain accused of mishandling classified documents while serving at the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, was charged yesterday with making a false official statement, committing adultery and storing pornography on his government computer.
The additional charges came on the same day Capt. James Yee was released from a naval brig in South Carolina, where he had been held since his arrest almost three months ago. An Army spokesman said the commander determined there was "no reason to hold him."
Yee's defense team characterized the new charges as an attempt by the military to salvage a deteriorating case against the chaplain, formerly stationed at Fort Lewis.
"I don't know why the government would pursue these charges, except for the fact that it's embarrassed by the implosion of charges it originally asserted against my client," said Eugene Fidell, his lead attorney.
Military officials said the four new charges were a matter of "due diligence" during the investigation.
Yee, who is in his mid-30s, was arrested Sept. 10 in Jacksonville, Fla., after federal agents said he was found with sketches of the Guantánamo military prison to which he was assigned. They also said he had documents concerning captured Taliban and al-Qaida fighters, to whom he ministered, and their U.S. interrogators. Initial reports, many citing unidentified government sources, said Yee was being held on suspicion of sedition and espionage.
But on Oct. 10, military authorities formally charged Yee with less serious offenses: disobeying a general order by taking classified material home and transporting classified material without proper security containers.
The two charges carry a maximum jail term of two years each under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the laws governing military personnel.
The most serious of the new charges was making a false official statement, which carries a maximum penalty of five years in jail under military law. According to charging documents, Yee lied and said "yes" when asked in February if some "CDs" had been cleared for release to detainees. The charging documents do not state whether "CDs" refer to compact discs or something else or why Yee was being questioned.
Yee also was charged with conduct unbecoming an officer and misuse of government equipment. Both were related to his alleged storing of pornographic images on his government computer, and each carries a maximum of two years' jail time.
Though it seldom leads to prison time, adultery is frequently prosecuted in the military, said Bainbridge attorney J. Byron Holcomb, a retired Navy judge advocate general who often handles military cases.
Typically, members of the military are tried in an administrative hearing and, if found guilty, discharged under "other than honorable" or "dishonorable" status. "It's a career ender, a charge like that, right up there with DUI," Holcomb said.
In 2001, the 50th anniversary of the code, a commission of military-law experts recommended that crimes involving consensual sex between adults be repealed.
"The military is the only jurisdiction with which I'm familiar that would even dream in this day and age of pursuing charges of adultery," said Fidell, who is also president of the National Institute of Military Justice, a nonprofit organization that sponsored the commission. "It's the type of thing that gives military justice a bad name." He is handling Yee's case as a private lawyer, not in connection with the institute.
Yee, a West Point graduate who converted to Islam, was stationed at Fort Lewis before being assigned to Guantánamo Bay in late 2002. After Sept. 11, 2001, Yee became one of the most visible spokesmen for Muslims in the military, telling anyone who would listen that Islam is a religion of peace, not hate.
In a letter to President Bush on Monday, Fidell decried the conditions under which Yee was held.
Yee was in solitary confinement 23 hours a day with only one hour of solitary exercise, the letter said. He was required to wear hand and leg irons when leaving the cell.
Brig personnel refused to recognize his status as an officer. They also would not provide him with a liturgical calendar or prayer rug and refused to tell him the time of day or the direction of Mecca, "thereby needlessly interfering with his daily prayers and religious practices," Fidell asserted.
Yee was released yesterday and assigned to Fort Benning, Ga., where he will report to the chaplain and resume his religious duties, said Raul Duany, spokesman for U.S. Southern Command, which oversees all U.S. military operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
Duany said the decision to release him was made by Guantánamo commander Maj. Gen. Geoffrey Miller, who is overseeing the investigation and would oversee court-martial proceedings. "The commander felt there was no reason to hold him," Duany said.
Local friends and supporters of Yee were relieved that he had been released but expressed incredulity at the new charges.
"This is so ludicrous," said Ibrahim Mohamed, board chairman of the Seattle chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which recently launched a campaign on behalf of Yee. "This is totally out of character for a Muslim chaplain, a person who's dedicated his life to teaching others about Islam. I hope this is not out of desperation, that they're hoping to have anything that will stick."
Yee's wife, Huda Suboh, 29, lives in Olympia and, according to family friend Shaheed Nuriddim, spent yesterday morning at communal prayers in celebration of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan. Suboh could not be reached for comment yesterday, but Nuriddim said "she believes steadfastly that her husband is innocent of all these allegations including the charge of adultery."
Suboh released a statement through Nuriddim: "I stand by him. It is very clear to me that the U.S. government only wants to destroy his character and his family. But they will not succeed."
"I'm aghast," said Nuriddim, 51, a friend of Yee's for about two years. "The nature of the charges are absurd. I didn't know adultery was a crime in this country. Beyond that, this certainly would not be in character for him."
Nuriddim questioned the motives of those pressing the new charges. "I think this is just an attempt for them to save face. What is the aim of it to try to smear his reputation? ... This just clearly says to me they're trying to hurt this person. It's just ugly."
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