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April 23, 2004

Chaplain's Release Deflates Guantanamo 'Spy Ring' Theory


by Katherine Stapp

Although spying charges have been dropped against a Muslim army chaplain ministering to the 600 prisoners at Washington's Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba, the fate of two others facing similar accusations remains in doubt.

The chaplain, Capt. James Yee, was exonerated and returned to his post last week after spending 76 days in solitary confinement. His ordeal has been held up by many Arab and Muslim groups as further proof the U.S. government relies on racial and religious profiling in its hunt for suspected "terrorists."

"James Yee's case follows the pattern that some of our law enforcement agencies charge American Muslims of various backgrounds without much evidence, (and) the next thing, the media puts these individuals on trial and infers judgment of guilt," said Rasheed Ahmed, president of the Illinois-based Muslim Civil Rights Center.

"More and more, when and if anyone gets a fair trial, either the charges are dropped or they are reduced to something very different – like in Yee's case, adultery or downloading pornography," he said in an interview.

Yee first came under suspicion after he complained to superiors about the way Guantanamo detainees were being treated and sought more recreational activities for them, the 'Washington Post' reported in October 2003.

The detainees, who hail from 44 countries, were seized during the fighting that ousted the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and have been labeled"enemy combatants" by Washington – leaving them in a legal limbo.

Yee was not the only Guantanamo staff member worried about the prisoners. A young Syrian-born Air Force senior airman named Ahmad Halabi, who was dispatched to the base to serve as an Arabic translator in November 2002, also expressed misgivings about conditions at the camp.

Their concerns are not unfounded. According to international human rights groups, detainees have made 32 suicide attempts over the last 18 months, and many are being treated for depression.

Last July, Halabi was picked up at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station in Florida as he prepared to go to Syria to get married. His laptop computer allegedly contained letters from detainees and other documents, some marked "secret," which investigators claim he planned to transport out of the country – an accusation Halabi denies.

The airman is facing 17 charges, the most serious being espionage and aiding the enemy. A dozen other counts – including that he gave prisoners baklava pastries – have been dropped. Although Halabi was originally eligible for the death penalty, investigators say it is no longer a capital case.

His court martial is tentatively scheduled for Jun. 15, but the man's civilian lawyer, Don Rehkopf, says he would be "totally unprepared" to go to trial on that date because military prosecutors have refused to share key evidence against his client.

"In all my years of practicing law, I've never encountered anything like this," said Rehkopf. "It's total paranoia – there's a terrorist under every rock and every Muslim is suspect."

"There's a significant amount of evidence I haven't seen and issues I can't ask my client about," he added. "The prosecutors say it's not relevant, but I say, 'don't tell me how to do my job'. They're being obstructionist."

For example, Rehkopf says he has been unable to obtain a complete record of Halabi's initial interrogation. "They just give us what they want to give us," he said.

Of approximately 30,000 pages of documents the judge ordered the prosecution to turn over three weeks ago, Rehkopf says he has received about 150 pages, with no explanation for the missing material.

The third Guantanamo case involves another translator, Ahmed Fathy Mehalba, who was detained Sep. 29 at Boston's international airport coming home from a vacation in Egypt.

Mehalba is accused of illegally possessing classified documents and lying to investigators. His lawyer says he had clearance for the files, and mistakenly copied one onto a computer disk. Mehalba has pled not guilty, and is being held in a Massachusetts jail.

Analysts say it is uncertain what effect, if any, Yee's exoneration will have on the other cases. While the three arrests were initially described as connected to an "espionage ring" at Guantanamo, little or no evidence has publicly emerged to support this idea.

"I think the lesson of Capt. Yee's case is that the government has a hair trigger and is quick to see plots and threats even before they have the facts," said Mary Cheh, a law professor at George Washington University in Washington, DC.

"And if the focus of their attention is a Muslim ministering to Muslims, then the level of suspicion is off the charts," she added. "All of which might be understandable, but the government has to be willing to promptly determine the facts and then apologize when they are wrong."

Others believe the arrests are less the product of a deliberate witch hunt, but rather stem from intense pressure to ensure security at the base.

"I doubt that there is any overt effort to single out Muslims for adverse treatment, but I believe it is highly probable that conduct attributable to a Muslim in the service will be viewed with greater suspicion if it has any apparent connection to detainees or Islam in general than it would otherwise be," said Steven Saltzburg of the National Institute of Military Justice, a non-profit group that advocates for the fair administration of military law.

"Especially with the 9/11 Commission focusing on the government's failure to 'connect the dots' before the Sep. 11 attack, government officials may have an understandable, albeit mistaken, tendency to see connections that are not really there," he said.

Meanwhile, the US Supreme Court started hearing arguments this week on behalf of Guantanamo detainees seeking access to the US court system to prove their innocence.

The justices' ruling, which could have serious implications for the conduct of the government's "war on terror," is expected by the end of June.

(Inter Press Service)


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