|Sunday, December 22
The horrors of Saddam's 'sadist' son
By Tom Farrey
In the history of the world, an expanse that covers Genghis Khan and Adolf Hitler and other despots both past and present, there is no shortage of absolute rulers whose human rights records compare with that of today's designated pariah, Saddam Hussein.
As president of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee, Uday allegedly tortures athletes for losing games. He sticks them in prison for days or months at a time. Has them beaten with iron bars. Caned on the soles of their feet. Chained to walls and left to stay in contorted positions for days. Dragged on pavement until their backs are bloody, then dunked in sewage to ensure the wounds become infected. If Uday stops by a player's jail cell, he might urinate on his bowed, shaven head. Just to humiliate him.
This is the picture that emerges of Uday Saddam Hussein from ESPN.com interviews in the United States and England with former Iraqi national team athletes in several sports. Some of them claim they were personally tortured. All of them say they lived in fear that they would be punished at Uday's whim.
"You may find (his brutality) absurd or disgusting," said Issam Thamer al-Diwan, former coach of Uday's personal club volleyball team and a national team player before that. "Well, Uday thinks this is legitimate."
Human rights monitors for the United Nations have amply documented the savagery of Saddam Hussein. His eldest son and a possible successor, Uday, reportedly grew up watching his father punish political opponents as a way to control a large, diverse country. Uday, now 38, has earned his own reputation for violent behavior. In an Amnesty International report, Uday reportedly ordered that the hand of an Olympic committee security guard, accused of stealing sports equipment, be cut off. The missing equipment was later found. Similar incidents tied to Uday later became part of a United Nations report on human rights in Iraq.
Some athletes say he does it to encourage better performances. Others say he does it just for fun.
"The word that suits him is sadist," said Latif Yahia, who as Uday's former body double and a member of his entourage claims to have witnessed the punishment of about 10 athletes. "I think Saddam's more human than Uday."
Uday Hussein did not respond to ESPN.com requests for comment that were placed separately through the Iraqi permanent mission to the United Nations, Mohammed Aldouri, and the Iraqi National Olympic Committee. In a brief telephone interview, Jabbar al-Hadooshi, who identified himself as an INOC deputy, offered a blanket denial that any athletes have been imprisoned and punished.
"There was no torture," he said through a translator. "What we suffer from is the embargo (against trade with Iraq imposed by the United Nations). The embargo has affected every sector in Iraq, including sports."
He did not explain his rationale other than to say the embargo has affected Iraq's ability to buy the sports equipment necessary to produce winning teams and athletes.
Former players and coaches, though, say Uday is the problem with Iraqi sports. They say the threat of being tortured, and the interference of Uday -- who is known to scream at players at halftime of soccer matches and dictate to coaches who will play -- undermined their performances.
"The Iraqi teams used to produce the champions of Asia in many sports," said Abid "The King" Kadhum, an Iraqi soccer star from the 1960s and '70s who later became coach of Uday's personal soccer club, al-Rashid. "They have declined since the arrival of Uday."
Iraq's only Olympic medal came in 1960, a bronze in weightlifting. That was long before Uday became head of the country's committee in 1984, and now the nation barely participates in the Olympics. Iraq sent just four athletes to the 2000 Games in Sydney, down from its high of 43 in 1980. Still, Iraqi officials have expressed interest in bidding for Baghdad to become host of the 2012 Summer Games.
Sharar Haydar, who was on the Iraqi team at the time but sat out the game with an injury, told ESPN.com that players, indeed, were tortured. He said his teammates joked with each other about their inability to tell the truth to the FIFA officials during their two-day visit.
"I mean, nobody was going to say anything," Haydar said.
Many exiled athletes and coaches are still reluctant to talk about playing sports under Uday, fearing retribution against themselves or family members left behind in Iraq. But those who did agree to speak with ESPN.com had plenty to say, describing governmental treatment of athletes that defies comparison. The only parallel in modern sports history might be from the era of Stalinist Russia, when the secret police chief was known to send soccer players to Siberian gulags.
The athletes' accounts buttress reports from Amnesty International and the United Nations, which, without describing the torture of athletes, have cited the existence of a secret prison inside the Iraqi National Olympic Committee headquarters. Yahia said the building has become little more than the criminal business headquarters for Uday, who allegedly uses the facility to store cigarettes and other illegal goods.
"We took $125 million from Kuwait," Yahia said, of the looting he claims he was ordered to participate in after Iraq invaded the neighboring country in 1990. "This is just for Uday. The cars, furniture -- every single thing (we took) was stored in the Iraqi Olympic building."
Uday also used his Olympic association when his band of thieves were denied in Kuwait. In October 1990, Uday wrote a letter to his uncle Ali Hassan al-Majid, who was in charge of the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait, requesting that he allow Uday's associates to take a Kuwaiti printing press that he coveted "as a service to the sports movement." The letter, later recovered after U.N. forces pushed the Iraqi military back out of Kuwait, is signed by Uday on his personal stationery.
"This is not a sports place," Yahia said. "This is Uday's palace, Uday's world."
That security unit, like his business empire, is housed in the Olympic committee building, creating an atmosphere of fear, athletes say.
"(Anyone) who comes to apply for a job with the government as a doctor, engineer or instructor must get a security clearance from the Olympic committee, which is strange and extraordinary," said Muhsin Hassan, a former national team boxer. "They do this only to spy on them, so anyone can see (Uday) controls everything in Iraq."
Beyond the torture of athletes, forces working for Uday and his father have killed more than 50 former athletes and sports figures, according to the Iraqi Olympic Council, a nascent group of exiled Iraqi athletes. Thamer, who heads the group, said most of the athletes were killed for what were described as political reasons. But, he argues, their status as high-profile, influential athletes often made them greater threats to the regime. (See dossier of allegations by Iraqi athletes against Uday Hussein.)
The allegations in the ESPN.com report come on the heels of a formal complaint filed with the International Olympic Committee earlier this month. Indict, a London-based human rights group created in 1997 that seeks to bring criminal charges against the top leaders of the Iraqi regime, asked the IOC Ethics Commission earlier this month to suspend or expel the country from the Olympics based on violations of the IOC code of ethics. The IOC, which has no sway over a nation's choice for its Olympic committee chief, is reviewing the request.
"The IOC strongly condemns any violation of athletes' rights," IOC spokeswoman Giselle Davies said in a statement to ESPN.com. "The Olympic Movement's mission around the world is aimed at the development of stronger individuals through the practice of sport. Any abuse of this system runs counter to our organization's ideals."
Most of the athletes who spoke with ESPN.com were not mentioned in the Indict complaint, but each is supportive of efforts to protect Iraqi athletes. The first-person accounts of three of those athletes are detailed in this report, along with a timeline that serves as a dossier of allegations and evidence of abuse by Iraqi Olympic officials.
"We are ready to stand face-to-face with those who defend Uday, in the same courtroom," al-Diwan said. "We can bring thousands of witnesses (and pieces of) evidence when Uday is brought to trial. We are ready to do this."
Tom Farrey is a senior writer with ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. ESPN producer Mary Sadanaga contributed to this report.