Search

Son Of Saddam As Iraq's top Olympic official, Uday Hussein is accused of the torture and murder of athletes who fail to win

March 24, 2003
March 24, 2003

Table of Contents
March 24, 2003

Son Of Saddam As Iraq's top Olympic official, Uday Hussein is accused of the torture and murder of athletes who fail to win

As he stood at the double-door entrance to the office of Iraqi
National Olympic Committee president Uday Hussein, the boxer knew
what awaited on the other side. He had just returned from a Gulf
States competition, where he had been knocked out in the first
round. Now it was time to pay the price. ¶ Inside the
yellow-and-blue office, Uday, the older of Iraqi president Saddam
Hussein's two sons, paced the floor, waving his expensive Cuban
cigar and glaring out the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking
Baghdad. "He was yelling about how Iraq should not be embarrassed
by its athletes," recalls Latif Yahia, employed for nearly five
years as Uday's body double--he would stand in for Uday on
occasions that were deemed a security threat--and one of his
closest associates to have escaped to the West. "He kept
saying, 'This is my Iraq. Embarrassing Iraq embarrasses me.'"

This is an article from the March 24, 2003 issue Original Layout

With a wave of Uday's arm the manacled boxer was led into the
room by Iraqi secret service. Sitting behind a dark wood desk
beneath an oversized portrait of himself, Uday began his tirade.
"In sport you can win or you can lose. I told you not to come
home if you didn't win." His voice rising, he walked around the
desk and gave the boxer a lesson. "This is how you box," he
screamed as he threw a left and a right straight to the fighter's
face. Blood dribbled from the athlete's nose as Uday launched
another round of punches. Then, using the electric prod he was
famous for carrying, Uday jolted the boxer in the chest.

Blood was streaming from a cut above the boxer's eye when Uday
ordered his guards to fetch a straight razor. The boxer cried out
as Uday held the razor to his throat, and as he moved the blade
to the fighter's forehead, Uday laughed. He then shaved the man's
eyebrows, an insult to Muslim males. "Take him downstairs and
finish the job," Uday screamed.

Says Yahia, "They took him to the basement of the Olympic
building. It has a 30cell prison where athletes--and anyone else
who is out of favor with Uday--are beaten and tortured. That was
the last I ever heard of that boxer."

The butcher's boy, as he is sometimes called, is reputed to be
the most brutal member of Iraq's notorious ruling family. As an
infant he reportedly played with disarmed grenades. By 10 he was
accompanying his father to the torture chamber at
Qasr-al-Nihayyah (the Palace of the End, where many political
enemies, including deposed King Faisal II, were killed) to watch
Saddam deal with dissidents. By 16 he bragged of committing his
first murder, telling classmates he had killed a teacher who had
upbraided him in front of a girlfriend.

For nearly 20 years Uday Hussein has been the most powerful force
in Iraq's athletic hierarchy. In 1984, when Uday was 20, Saddam
handed his son the reins of both the country's Olympic committee
and its soccer federation, hoping Uday could help rebuild the
spirit of the nation's youth while also proving himself a worthy
successor to his father. The Iran-Iraq war, which would drag on
for eight years and lead to the death of hundreds of thousands of
young Iraqis, was demoralizing Iraqi youth. Success in sports,
Saddam thought, could lift their spirits and restore national
pride.

"Saddam's plan didn't work," says Issam Thamer al-Diwan, a former
Iraqi volleyball player who now lives in the United States and
carries a list of 52 athletes he claims have been murdered by the
Hussein family. "Iraqi sports are worse today than ever. Our
teams used to win. There was much pride in playing for your
country. But Uday never understood pride, only fear. He was never
an athlete. He thought he could use his father's sadistic
approach to improve performance. He has failed."

In fact Iraq, once an Asian sports force that sent 46 athletes to
the 1980 Summer Olympics, now rivals Liechtenstein in terms of
athletic insignificance. Iraq sent just four athletes to the 2000
Games in Sydney. "People don't want to play because they [are
afraid] to lose," says Sabah Mohammed, Iraq's former national
basketball coach, who fled to London in 1999 and claims that nine
members of his wife's family have been executed by the Hussein
regime. "Can you blame them? No one wants to speak out against
Uday." (SI's attempts to reach Uday for comment through the Iraqi
permanent mission to the United Nations were unsuccessful.)

Uday's penchant for violence has long been an open secret among
international athletic officials. Amnesty International reported
in 2001 that Uday had ordered the hand of a security officer at
his Olympic headquarters to be chopped off five years earlier,
after the man was accused of stealing sports equipment that was
missing (but later turned up). In 1997 FIFA, the governing body
of world soccer, sent two investigators to Baghdad to question
members of the Iraqi national team who'd allegedly had their feet
caned by Uday's henchmen after losing a World Cup qualifying
match to Kazakhstan. The investigators spoke only to people whom
Uday had selected. The result: a report exonerating Uday.

"Did the torture of those players happen?" asks Sharar Haydar, a
longtime Iraqi soccer star who participated in 40 international
matches for the national team and was a teammate of many of the
victims. "Absolutely. But when you interview athletes who are
under Uday's control, what else do you expect them to say?

"I know what they went through," adds Haydar, who escaped from
Iraq in 1998 and now lives in London. "I was tortured four times
after matches. One time, after a friendly [match] against Jordan
in Amman that we lost 2--0, Uday had me and three teammates taken
to the prison. When we arrived, they took off our shirts, tied
our feet together and pulled our knees over a bar as we lay on
our backs. Then they dragged us over pavement and concrete,
pulling the skin off our backs. Then they pulled us through a
sandpit to get sand in our backs. Finally, they made us climb a
ladder and jump into a vat of raw sewage. They wanted to get our
wounds infected. The next day, and for every day we were there,
they beat our feet. My punishment, because I was a star player,
was 20 [lashings] per day. I asked the guard how he could ever
forgive himself. He laughed and told me if he didn't do this,
Uday would do it to him. Uday made us athletes an example. He
believed that if people saw he was not afraid to beat a hero,
that they would live in greater fear."

Ahmed Kadoim, a FIFA-recognized referee who fled Iraq in
December, tells a similar tale of torture at Uday's hands after
he refused to fix a soccer game last May. "I was the referee of a
match between Al-Shorta and the club of the air force," Kadoim
says. "I was told that Shorta should win, but I refused to fix
the match. It ended at 2--2. I was taken by Uday's men to
Al-Radwaniya prison, where they used hoses and a cane to beat me
three times a day. My punishment was 10 beatings each time. When
I was bleeding, they forced me into a pool of sewage. The guards
laughed and said, 'You should have let them win.' I still am in
pain nearly a year later."

"Saddam is brutal and occasionally predictable," a senior U.S.
State Department official told SI. "Uday is brutal and
unpredictable." It may be revisionist history, but the official
says Uday's bloodthirsty nature worked to his father's advantage
during the Gulf War. "You should not discount the fact that when
we invaded Iraq in 1991 that Uday's presence, and the possibility
at that time that he might be the next ruler of Iraq, played a
role in our decision to leave Saddam in place. There was a lot of
unease, and there was no plan for what would come after Saddam.
The possibility that it could have been one of his sons was
unacceptable." Indeed, Uday, along with his brother, Qusay, top a
list of Iraqi officials who the Bush Administration has said will
be tried for war crimes or crimes against humanity after an
American-led attack on Iraq, according to published reports.

"Two stories about Uday leap to mind," the State Department
official told SI. "The first is the caning of the feet--called
falaka--of the soccer team. That form of torture is well known to
be used by Saddam's forces as well. They beat the soles of the
feet, which breaks a lot of the smaller bones, causes massive
swelling and leaves victims unable to walk for a while. There
were also reports that after a loss Uday forced the volleyball
team, which was made up of taller athletes, to remain in a room
he had constructed with a five-foot-high ceiling. He built the
room so small that not all of them could sit at the same time.
The only way they could fit was by having half of them standing
and leaning over while the other half were sitting with their
knees in their chests. He considered this a motivational
technique. There was always a psychological element to the kind
of torture Uday employed. You are supposed to play like tall
players, so feel what it is like to be small. For the soccer
players, you are supposed to be fast and quick, so I am going to
beat your feet and ruin your livelihood. That was his thinking."

After years of Uday's abuse, it came as little surprise to the
international community when he was the target of an
assassination attempt in December 1996. Uday was driving to a
party in a two-car caravan with bodyguards when gunmen peppered
his car with submachine gun fire. Uday was hit by eight bullets
and was rushed to a hospital. No one was arrested for the crime,
leading experts on Iraq to believe that a member of Uday's
family--possibly his brother--had masterminded the attack. The
6'1", athletically built Uday survived, but he was partially
paralyzed. Today he uses a wheelchair in private and limps with a
cane in public. In the years since the assassination attempt
Saddam has tended to favor Qusay as his successor.

As U.S. and British forces sit on the borders of Iraq poised for
invasion, Uday Hussein's name is near the top of the Pentagon's
list of the Filthy 40--the close associates of Saddam targeted
for war-crime trials. Yet Uday remains in place, unchallenged, as
his country's Olympic leader.

"This man has no business using the Olympic rings to give him
credibility," says Charles Forrest, CEO of INDICT, a
U.S.-government-funded human rights group based in London. "That
the Olympic community, which has known about the atrocities of
Uday for years, has taken no action is a black eye for the
organization. The IOC is in a morally indefensible position
here."

In December, INDICT filed a complaint with the IOC asking that
Iraq be expelled from the Olympic community. Attached to the
complaint were sworn statements from several Iraqi athletes
detailing torture and imprisonment on orders from Uday. In
February the IOC agreed to investigate Uday's behavior. As of
last week, however, none of the athletes who had given sworn
statements for the INDICT complaint had been contacted by the
IOC.

"[IOC leaders] have tried to call the timing of our complaint
suspicious and suggest it is part of an anti-Saddam agenda," says
Forrest. "The real question should be, Why didn't you do
something about this years ago? It is not as if we've uncovered
something no one has ever heard of, and they know it. It almost
seems [that they're thinking] that if they wait long enough, the
U.S. will invade and they won't have to deal with this issue."

IOC president Jacques Rogge acknowledged last week that his
organization received the complaint and says it is in the hands
of the ethics committee. But IOC member Richard Pound says that
it is "important to remember these are just allegations, and you
have to make sure this is not all tied to the Iraq-U.S. dispute,
that we are not being used for propaganda. You just never know."

"That disgusts me that someone would say that," says Haydar, the
former soccer star. "I wish they would run their hands over our
scars, see the pain in our eyes and float in raw sewage. Then
there would be no questions."

"The problem for the IOC is going to be when Saddam is overthrown
and people walk into the Olympic headquarters and see the torture
chamber and the blood on the floor," Forrest says. "What will
they say then?"

TWO COLOR PHOTOS FEAR FACTOR Yahia (above, right), a former double for Uday, says Iraq's Olympic programs have been destroyed since Saddam (with Uday, below) gave his son control in 1984 and the brutal punishment of athletes began.COLOR PHOTO: WALLY MCNAMEE/CORBIS [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: INA/AP [See caption above]B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY KARIM SHAHIB/AFP/CORBISB/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY FALEH KHEIBER/REUTERS (UDAY)FOUR COLOR PHOTOS: BOB MARTIN (4)
"The Olympic building...has a 30-cell prison where athletes--and
anyone else out of favor with Uday--are beaten and tortured."
--Latif Yahia, body double
"Uday made us an example. He believed that if people saw he was
not afraid to beat a hero, that they would live in greater fear."
--Sharar Haydar, soccer star
"People don't want to play because they [are afraid] to lose. Can
you blame them? No one wants to speak out against Uday."
--Sabah Mohammed, basketball coach
"When I was bleeding, they forced me into a pool of sewage. The
guards laughed and said, 'You should have let them win.'"
--Ahmed Kadoim, soccer referee
"I wish [the IOC] would run their hands over our scars, see the
pain in our eyes and float in raw sewage. Then there would be no
questions."