The Phyllis P. Marshall Center Ballroom resonated with a singsong tenor as Jassim El-Deen, president of the Muslim Student Association, delivered an Islamic prayer to an audience of about 200 people Thursday night.
The prayer kicked off a lecture by retired U.S. Army Capt. James Yee, a natural-born U.S. citizen and Muslim convert.
Yee was arrested and put in solitary confinement in a super-maximum-security prison after serving for two months as a religious adviser and Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay Naval Station. Representatives of Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Council for American-Islamic Relations joined him on stage.
The focus of the night’s event was to raise awareness about the executive branch’s policies regarding the handling of military prisoners in the War on Terror.
According to Mike Pheneger – who sits on the national and Florida executive councils of the ACLU – the Bush administration, along with the military, unlawfully turned to torture as a means of obtaining information.
“We had a real pressure cooker going because we needed intelligence from (prisoners),” he said. “We persuaded ourselves that the reason we weren’t getting the intelligence is that we weren’t using the right interrogation methods. We persuaded ourselves to engage in torture, mishandling of the Quran and religious symbols of Islam and to do a number of things that were absolutely, totally beyond the pale.”
According to Yee, inmates of Guantanamo gave him firsthand accounts of these abuses. He witnessed abuse of the Quran and heard of tales from prisoners of being made to kneel in a prayer position on top of a pentagram and molested by female guards.
“Prisoners would tell me that sometimes they were forced to sit in what was at the center of the interrogation room, painted on the floor, a satanic circle, or the pentagram symbol of Satan,” Yee said. “The interrogator would attempt to make that prisoner bow down, prostrate, like the form of the Muslim prayer while he screamed at that prisoner that Satan is your God now.”
According to Yee, after attempting to offer religious solace to inmates and securing religious rights such as a shelf for the Quran, he became an inmate.
“The fact is, I was stripped of my religious rights,” he said. “Denied the same religious rights that I was able to defend for prisoners in Guantanamo, the same religious rights I was defending for American soldiers when I served in the military as a military chaplain. This was the most ironic element of my own imprisonment.”
After he was released, he became a champion for the civil rights of Muslim people who he feels are wrongly persecuted, and he has spoken on campuses around the nation.
Ahmed Badir, the Central Florida director of CAIR, found the event to be a success, but he wants people to translate words into action.
“I think the event was wonderful,” he said. “It was right on message. It raised awareness. It flowed well. The challenge is going to be, now that we’ve heard these things, what are we going to do now? The purpose of these events is to raise awareness and get people to act upon the information they’ve received.”