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.’ ”
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 30-cell 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?”