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U.N. Report Calls for the Closing of Guantanamo, Former Prison Chaplain Yee Details Abuses

StoryFebruary 16, 2006
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The United Nations has called on the Bush administration to immediately close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp in Cuba. In a report on conditions at the prison recently released, the U.N. says the United States should try all detainees or release them “without further delay.” We speak with former military Chaplain Yee, who was falsely accused of espionage by the U.S military and faced death penalty charges that were eventually dropped. [includes rush transcript]

The report, summarizing an investigation by five U.N. experts, urges the U.S. government to “refrain from any practice amounting to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”, including the force-feeding of hunger strikers through nasal tubes.

The report goes on to state, “In the case of the Guantanamo Bay detainees, the U.S. executive operates as judge, as prosecutor, and as defense council: this constitutes serious violations of various guarantees of the right to a fair trial before an independent tribunal.”

About 500 men are being held at the site. Charges have never been filed against most of them.

The U.S. has rejected most of the allegations, saying that the five investigators never actually visited Guantanamo Bay. The U.S. invited the U.N. to the camp, but refused to grant the investigators the right to speak to detainees in private. The U.N. said that private interviews were a “totally non-negotiable pre-condition” for conducting the visit and refused to send investigators.

The report’s findings were based on interviews with former detainees, public documents, media reports, lawyers and a questionnaire filled out by the U.S. government.

Last October, Democracy Now! co-hosts Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman interviewed attorney Julia Tarver, who represents ten detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Three of her clients were taking part in a hunger strike to protest conditions at the prison.

  • Julia Tarver, attorney representing ten detainees at Guantanamo Bay

We speak with someone who has spent time in Guantanamo Bay both as a member of the U.S. army and as a prisoner: Chaplain James Yee. He was one of the first Muslim Chaplains commissioned by the U.S Army. Yee was posted in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2002, but less than a year after serving there, he was accused of espionage by the military and faced charges so severe, that he was threatened with the death penalty. The charges were eventually reduced and eight months later, dropped altogether.

  • Chaplain Yee, Former military Chaplain who was falsely accused of espionage by the U.S military, wrote a book about his experiences called “For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.”

United Nations Report, PDF file.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Last October, Democracy Now! co-host Juan Gonzalez and I interviewed attorney Julia Tarver, who represents ten of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Three of her clients were taking part in a hunger strike to protest conditions at the prison. This is some of what Julia Tarver had to say.

JULIA TARVER: What we’ve learned is that in some sort of ill-advised attempt to stop the hunger strike, the guards and the medical staff are using intervention, medical intervention, to actually inflict forms of torture on our clients. They claim that in order to preserve life at the base they are inserting tubes into the clients’ noses that go down into their stomachs, and they’re able to be fed that way.

But the problem is the clients have told us horrific stories repeatedly, from different clients, about how these same tubes are being forcibly inserted in by riot guards, how they’re taken from one detainee and inserted into the next detainee with no sanitization, with the bile and the blood still on the tube from the previous detainee.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And all the while these detainees are shackled most of the time? What did you find?

JULIA TARVER: What we’ve understood is that for various periods of time they were definitely shackled, multiple shackles on their arms, on their legs, on their knees, on their heads. When they insisted over and over again that they would not resist, because they knew resistance was futile, some of that shackling stopped. But every time, we understand, that the tubes were inserted, these riot teams were involved. Six men holding one client down while someone inserts a tube up their nose and into their stomach.

AMY GOODMAN: Attorney Julia Tarver, interviewed on Democracy Now! in October. We’re joined now by someone who has spent time in Guantanamo Bay, both as a member of the U.S. Army and as a prisoner: Chaplain James Yee. He’s one of the first Muslim chaplains commissioned by the U.S. army. He was posted at Guantanamo, Cuba in 2002, but less than a year after serving there, he was accused of espionage by the military and faced charges so severe that he was threatened with the death penalty. The charges were eventually reduced and, eight months later, dropped altogether. Chaplain Yee wrote a book about his experiences called: For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire. He joins us again in our Firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!

CHAPLAIN YEE: It’s nice to be here again.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us, Chaplain Yee. Can you respond to the U.N. report calling for the closing of Guantanamo?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Right. Yes, this U.N. report, this inquiry that we hear about this week, it’s very significant, because it’s — one, it’s a confirmation that there were terrible abuses and degrading, cruel treatment down in Guantanamo. I can confirm that because I was there myself. And, it also questions whether or not things have really changed or not, as the U.S. military and the U.S. government has said that things have changed. So, it calls into question whether or not there have been changes made.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you saw there, and listening now to Julia Tarver on this issue of the force feeding of hunger-strikers, sticking these tubes down the throats of men and then, when one man — the tube has been shoved down him, taking that same tube and sticking it down the person next to him?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Right. The aspect of force feeding was implemented when I was there, and I witnessed the actual process of this happening to detainees in the detention hospital on several visits that I made to the hospital.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you see?

CHAPLAIN YEE: It’s a very violent process in which the guards — they come and they hold the prisoner down, and they have to have guards hold the legs, the arms, which are already shackled, as well as the forehead back of the prisoner in order that this tube can be forced down the nose of the prisoner, after the tube and the nose itself are lubed with petroleum jelly or Vaseline. And as it goes in, of course, the prisoner let’s out this shrieking scream, because it’s very painful.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, if they wanted to ensure that the prisoners got nutrition, couldn’t they just give them intravenous?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Good question. I’m not an expert in the medical field, but perhaps that’s one thing they could have done.

AMY GOODMAN: Of course, then the question is: should they be doing this at all if they are resisting, if they are on hunger strike? Did you raise concerns when you would see this at the prison hospital?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Of course, the concerns that I raised were the mental state and the mental deterioration that led these prisoners to go on these hunger strikes. They had gotten — the few that were permanent residents of the hospital who were being force fed had gotten to such a poor state, in which they just refused to eat; they had no longer an appetite, and this is why they were being force fed. So, this is what actually initiated this process of force feeding.

AMY GOODMAN: The U.N. investigators were not allowed at Guantanamo. Can you talk about what you saw going on there that the rest of the world has not been able to see?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Right. I think the main thing that sticks out is the state of these prisoners. The mental state and the conditions that these prisoners are under is drastic. And one of the things that indicated this when I was there is that the U.S. Army, or the mission down there, had had a seventeen-man medical team of psychiatric nurses and doctors. Now, this is an indication that mental illness that occurred down in Guantanamo of the prisoners was a serious problem.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to correct what I said. The investigators at the U.N. were allowed to go down, but they weren’t allowed to interview the detainees alone. Why would that matter?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Because when you actually see how the prisoners are being treated in the detention operations and during interrogations, of course, there are going to be serious concerns. And many of those concerns, of course, I raised based on reports that I received from military personnel down there, as well as the prisoners themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Chaplain Yee. You were arrested leaving Guantanamo. Can you talk about what happened to you and why you think you went through the ordeal you did?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Yeah, coming back into the United States on what I thought would be a short two-week break, I was arrested at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. Customs officials, they stopped me, searched my bags, and claimed that I had suspicious documents. It was disturbing to learn that it was really the F.B.I. who had requested that these customs officials identify specifically me, single me out, and search me. And then these documents were then handed over to intelligence officers, who declared them to be classified, after which I was thrown in jail, which would ultimately be for 76 days in isolation, these heinous accusations and crimes were thrown against me — that I had committed espionage or spying, aiding the enemy — and I was threatened with the death penalty. Ultimately, after 76 days, they would let me out and continue to try and prosecute me for mishandling classified documents, but then, in the end, even those were dropped.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you think they went after you?

CHAPLAIN YEE: I think this really happened mainly because, one, of my religion faith. Being a Muslim American, was seen by some as meaning that I was also the enemy. Also, because I had an incredible amount of information about the abuses and about the mistreatment that was going on in Guantanamo, and, as part of my role as a chaplain, reporting that on a routine basis to the operation center and to my chain of command, raised some concerns, and they wanted to involuntary take me out of that operation.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about General Geoffrey Miller?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Excellent question here. The U.N. report actually also calls for the investigation and the holding of accountable people behind the abusive treatment of prisoners up to the highest levels. And I think this is a clearly — a clear response to the fact that the official U.S. Southern Command investigation which recommended a reprimand, disciplinary action, for Major General Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of the Joint Task Force, who the U.S. Southern Command refused to administer. So, there was no discipline at senior levels of the military, and I think the calling in this U.N. report for that is a response to what’s happening.

AMY GOODMAN: He’s retired?

CHAPLAIN YEE: I’ve read that he submitted paperwork for retirement. I’ve read that in the newspaper.

AMY GOODMAN:Do you feel he singled you out?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Clearly, he took responsibility for my arrest, for throwing me in prison and bringing charges against me, even though initial media reports said that the decision to arrest me was at — was made at the 'highest levels of the government.'


CHAPLAIN YEE: I question whether or not a two-star general is the highest levels of the government. But I clearly hold him responsible for buying into these false reports that were made against me by inexperienced, overzealous, hyper-vigilant and very much bigoted intelligence officers at the lower level.

AMY GOODMAN: When you say “highest levels,” saying beyond the two-star general, Miller, who are you talking about?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Perhaps senior levels in the Pentagon, as well as in the White House.

AMY GOODMAN: Like who?

CHAPLAIN YEE: I have no idea, but senior officials. It could go all the way up the chain of command to the President. I was actually told by my attorney when I retained him, the day he visited me in prison, that my level was mentioned in that day’s security report, or intel report, that the President receives on a daily basis, so, clearly, my case was at the highest levels in the government, at the level of the President.

AMY GOODMAN: Geoffrey Miller, the general, was then sent to Abu Ghraib, and they talked about him “Gitmo-izing” Abu Ghraib, bringing the dogs to Abu Ghraib, as well as a number of other atrocities that were committed there. Can you talk about your response to the latest series of pictures that have come out, that SBS, Australian broadcaster, has put out, Salon.com has put out?

CHAPLAIN YEE: Yeah. The recent pictures that we’ve seen, which are even more disturbing than the original pictures we saw of Abu Ghraib, is another indication that these abuses are far greater than what we know. And I’m sure there’s still a lot more material out there that we still haven’t seen. This would also call into question how far the abuses went in interrogations down in Guantanamo, as well. A current piece of information that we have to look at today is what we just heard about in terms of the forced feeding. As horrendous as the forced feeding was back in October and when I was there, we’ve seen today the use of a new restraint chair which is, seemingly, a much more abusive way to force feed prisoners. And you can look at the numbers, which were up towards 85 who were hunger-striking just in December, is now already down to four. What has caused that serious decline in the numbers of prisoners willing to go on hunger strike? It’s the methods and the tactics and the violence that they’re using now with these restraint chairs.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain them, how it works.

CHAPLAIN YEE: From what I’ve read on these restraint chairs — and it’s confirmed that companies have — medical companies who manufacture these chairs have sent them to Guantanamo. And what this does is it straps the prisoner in, completely secured in the chair, his hands, his legs, his whole body, and has no way of resisting in any way the tube going into his nose in the aspect of being force fed.

AMY GOODMAN: Your response to the Bush administration saying that the release of the photographs of abuse, in this case at Abu Ghraib, will just incite people and endanger U.S. military — you’re U.S. military — U.S. military around the world.

CHAPLAIN YEE: Whether or not that’s going to occur is yet to be seen. But, clearly, I think it’s incumbent upon us to — and our media to actually — to make the public aware, to make the world aware, of the truth of the matter. I think that’s the idea of news agencies: to report the truth. And this certainly is the truth.

AMY GOODMAN: Chaplain Yee, I want to thank you for being with us. Chaplain James Yee, former military chaplain, falsely accused of espionage by the U.S. military. His book is called, For God and Country: Faith and Patriotism Under Fire.

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“Doing Harm”: Roy Eidelson on the American Psychological Association’s Embrace of U.S. Torture Program

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