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In Iraq, it's win or else

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published December 15, 2002

For Iraqi athletes, winning may not be everything but losing is torture. Literally.

INDICT, a London-based human rights group, says Iraq's national Olympic committee has jailed and tortured athletes who didn't perform up to snuff. The committee's president, Saddam Hussein's oldest son, Uday, reportedly forced several track team members to crawl in wet cement and made some of them jump off a bridge. Uday even has his own jail for underachieving jocks, an ex-weightlifter says.

In a complaint filed earlier this month, INDICT demands that the International Olympic Committee expel Iraq for actions "so extreme and outrageous that they threaten the integrity of the Olympic movement as a whole."

What's surprising isn't that Iraq mistreats its citizens -- what else is new? -- but that the IOC can claim to promote "a peaceful and better world" while allowing a murderous thug like Uday to be in charge of a national program.

To be sure, the IOC has never seemed overly concerned with human rights abuses by its member countries. How else can you explain letting Nazi Germany host the 1936 Olympics or awarding the 2008 summer games to China, a country that has jailed or killed hundreds of political dissidents?

But with Iraq, the game moves into a different court.

"Here you've got a case where the actual Olympic committee itself is used for torture and corruption and the president is a sadistic maniac," says Charles Forrest of INDICT.

Uday Hussein's only apparent qualification to be involved with the Olympics is that he has lived in Switzerland, home of the IOC. He went into self-imposed exile there after he murdered his father's favorite bodyguard in 1988, sending Saddam Hussein into such a fit of rage that he wanted to kill Uday in return. Only intervention by Jordan's King Hussein, a family friend, saved Uday and enabled him to get on with his life of murder, greed and debauchery.

Uday's personal secretary, who defected in 1998, said he had seen his boss torture and kill. According to other accounts, Uday cruises the streets of Baghdad in search of young girls, some of whom he uses for target practice.

This is the man whom the IOC's Web site genteelly refers to as "Mr. Uday Hussein," the same Web site that talks about using sport to establish "a peaceful society with the goal of human dignity."

(The Iraqi Olympic Committee also has a Web site but didn't respond to requests for comment.)

INDICT, founded in 1997 to bring Iraqi war criminals to trial, filed its complaint on behalf of several Iraqi athletes. Among them is Raed Ahmad, a weightlifter who carried Iraq's flag in the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, then sought asylum.

"He's very mad when I stay here," Ahmad says of Uday. "They sent all my family to jail for two weeks -- my father, mother, two brothers, three sisters and my wife."

Ahmad said the jail is located in Iraq's Olympic committee headquarters in Baghdad. The entire weightlifting team was imprisoned in the early '90s for doing poorly in competition, he says, and a basketball coach was jailed for failing to bring home any medals.

Many Iraqi athletes have quit competing "because everybody is scared of Uday," says Ahmad, who lives in Detroit and makes sun roofs for GM cars. "If he don't like you, he sends you to jail."

Charges of mistreatment are nothing new. In 1997, FIFA, the international soccer governing body, sent investigators to Baghdad to interview members of Iraq's national soccer team who allegedly had been tortured after losing a big match. FIFA found no evidence of abuse, but you have to wonder how candid any Iraqi athlete would be when interviewed under Uday Hussein's nose.

The IOC's ethics commission says it will investigate the latest complaint and make recommendations to the full body. Don't hold your breath -- "It will certainly take a long time," says the committee's Pacquerette Girard Zapelli.

In all fairness to investigators, this may not be the best time to go to Iraq, with war likely to start any day. INDICT acknowledges it had some concern about the timing of its complaint. But it felt it had to act after Britain issued a scathing report on Iraq's human rights record Dec. 2 but failed to mention athletes specifically.

In the meantime, there's no word on whether Saddam Hussein still plans to bid for the 2012 Summer Olympics, as reported in the Washington Times last March. After all, it's hard to live up to the Olympic motto -- "faster, higher, stronger" -- when your athletes are covered with concrete.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at

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