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9/11 Seven Years Later: Civil, Human Rights Needed for All

Pacific Citizen, News Feature, Lynda Lin Posted: Sep 11, 2008

It felt like just yesterday that James Yee was at Guantnamo. The 40-year-old former Muslim Army chaplain spent less than a year at the infamous U.S. detention center, but the memories still haunt him. Such is the typical experience of those who come to know the place, especially for Yee who has been both a minister to the prisoners and an accused terrorist spy.

It's been five years since Yee, a West Point graduate and third generation Chinese American, was arrested Sept. 10, 2003, and accused of espionage by his own government. In the years between, life has moved on. Yee has written a book about his ordeal, traveled all over the U.S. to lecture about human rights abuses, and recently helped nominate a Democratic presidential candidate as a delegate in Denver.

But his voice still crackles with anger when he journeys back to this dark spot in his memory.

"I was in fear for my life," said Yee to the Pacific Citizen about being threatened with the death penalty. In his Navy brig solitary cell, he had to come to grips with being falsely convicted. "That was a reality for me."

All criminal charges against Yee were eventually dropped and he received an honorable discharge in 2005 along with a second Army Commendation medal for "exceptionally meritorious service." The irony isn't lost on the Olympia, Wash. resident - he says his clean slate is proof that the military made a mistake.

"I'm still expecting an official apology," he said. But to get the U.S. to apologize for anything, he added, is not easy.

It took over 40 years for America to recognize and redress its mistakes in the roundup and internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. There is a saying that history unchecked tends to repeat itself, said Yee who sees parallels between the WWII mistreatment of JAs and post-Sept. 11th government policies.

So on the anniversary of his arrest, the seventh anniversary of the Sept. 11th terrorist attacks and the 20th anniversary of redress, Yee and many JA leaders are calling for the restoration of some very basic human and civil rights. Now, they say, is the time to reflect and demand equality for all - both in the U.S. and abroad in a place called Gitmo, where government officials say the law does not apply.

Similar Experiences

It sounds just too familiar for many former internees and their descendents - a barbwire-encompassed camp holding wartime enemies indefinitely in the name of national security. Before his passing in 2005, Karen Korematsu-Haigh said her famous father Fred Korematsu was disgusted over the government's roundup and detainment of Muslims and Muslim Americans.

The civil rights icon wondered if anything was learned from his court case, said Karen.

Korematsu along with Gordon Hirabayashi and Minoru Yasui challenged the constitutionality of the wartime incarceration of JAs during WWII in separate cases that ended up before the Supreme Court. Korematsu was convicted of evading wartime evacuation orders, a decision that was upheld during the war, but later vacated in 1983 in a landmark coram nobis case.

Today, the cases are sober reminders of the dangers wartime hysteria can pose on civil and human rights.

"In 1942, Japanese Americans did not get their day in court, but they were imprisoned and never charged," said Karen. "Certainly JA organizations, the JACL and individuals like me need to speak out and make the government accountable."

Before he passed away, Korematsu filed a brief in support of Guantnamo detainees' rights. It's a legacy that the next generation of JA leaders is keeping alive. Last April Sansei Karen, Jay Hirabayashi and Holly Yasui also lent their famous last names to an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in Turkman v. John Ashcroft citing the similarities between the plight of their Issei grandparents after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the struggle of Arab and Muslim immigrants after Sept. 11th.

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals refused his filing of the amicus brief, said Eric Muller, a University of North Carolina law professor. But if the case makes it to the Supreme Court and the "relevant legal issue remains in contention," he will look into filing another brief.

Jay would do it again in a heartbeat. "Here we have a visible group of people, who are perceived to be a threat to the government, and lose all their rights ... we need to prevent these tragic circumstances from repeating."

In times of war, civil liberties often become casualties in the name of national security. With so many milestone anniversaries it's important to reflect on the journey, said Jay.

"The government needs to recognize everyone as citizens and human beings."

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

It's easier to abuse nameless and faceless foreigners, said Mahvish Rukhsana Khan, a 29-year-old recent law school graduate, journalist and Guantnamo interpreter.

In 2005 while still a law student at the University of Miami, Khan became a Pashto language interpreter for habeas lawyers who represented Afghan detainees.

After many trips to Gitmo, she saw that many of the accused terrorists were actually victims. Among them were a pediatrician and an 80-year-old paraplegic man. She heard stories of beatings and torture.

"The Guantnamo detainees are very far off of most people's radar because the government has hidden them in Cuba and has denied press access to the detainees," said Khan, author of the new book "My Guantnamo Diary."

Over the years, many of these alleged terrorists have been set free and never charged. Like Yee, Khan has not met a suspected terrorist during her time at the island prison, but she acknowledges that not all the prisoners are innocent. Separating the good from the bad can easily be done through trials, a right given in the U.S. to rapists and murderers, she said.

JACL Action

In the years following the Sept. 11th attacks, the JACL has continuously spoken out against the erosion of civil liberties. The organization has signed onto amicus briefs in support of accused American bomber Jose Padilla and spoken out against warrentless wiretapping.

At its July national convention in Salt Lake City, the organization made history again with the passage of a New England chapter resolution in support of detainees' rights. On the national council floor, chapter co-president Ken Oye urged members to see the importance of the resolution, especially in light of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to restore detainees' right of habeas corpus.

This spring, the House and Senate Judiciary Committees held a series of hearings on detainee abuse.

"It is important for JACL to be on the record supporting further investigations," said Oye. "These issues should not be swept under the rug for 30 years, as the internment was."

Championing human rights runs in the family for Oye, a political science and engineering systems professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2007, his daughter Mari Oye gained national attention as the presidential scholar who handed President George W. Bush a letter calling for the end of torture.

On the same day the JACL national council was considering a resolution supporting detainees' rights, New England chapter members Paul Watanabe, Taka and May Takayanagi, and Mari were speaking at the Kennedy Presidential Library on national security and civil liberties.

Copies of the JACL resolution will be sent to key members of the administration and Congress.

"The Constitution and its proclamation of civil liberties and human rights should be the standard for treatment of human beings by the government of the United States," said Floyd Mori, JACL national director.

Yee agrees. He believes that everyone held in U.S. custody should have due process rights.

Looking forward, Congress may be considering legislation on the legality of extraordinary rendition and the possibility of compensation for the victims.

"As Japanese Americans with intense memories of abuses of civil liberties in the name of national security, our voice matters. We need to ask the hard questions, to press on the justifications, to demand evidence, and to serve as a voice for those under suspicion," said Oye. "If we do not, who will?"

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