Torture: Iraqi Athletes Report Regime's Cruelties

Article excerpt

Most of the letters responding to ESPN.com's package on the torture of Iraqi athletes thanked us for bringing to light a horrific - and ongoing - chapter in sports history that largely had gone overlooked by the world, and particularly U.S., media. But the most interesting note was the one with "Nice Propaganda" in the subject line, generated by someone looking to discount our reporting.

"Honestly," the reader wrote in the message, "Uday Hussein just sounds like a Middle East version of Bobby Knight."

Perhaps many sports fans care more about Bob Knight's abuses than Uday Hussein's, but such a comparison trivializes the profound, sustained torture that Saddam Hussein's son visited on Iraq's athletes. As president of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee (INOC) since 1984, he had imprisoned and brutalized them for nothing more than losing games.

We knew our "Blood on the Rings" package would be viewed within a political context - that some readers would dismiss the stories based on nothing more than their antiwar sentiment, while others would embrace them because they would seem to help justify an attack.

So the question before us was: How do we cut through that noise to compile a report on human rights abuses that will be viewed as a credible and important piece of journalism? It's not as though Uday Hussein honors Freedom of Information requests. Iraqis wouldn't even grant our request to take a street photo of the Olympic headquarters, which allegedly included a prison on the first floor.

In January - a month after our report and the filing of a complaint by a London-based human rights group - the International Olympic Committee launched a formal investigation into the INOC. Since then, other former national team athletes, as well as a former soccer referee and Iraqi Olympic executive, have come forward with additional accounts of torture at the INOC. Amnesty International found ESPN.com's report "consistent with the accounts" of nonathletes.

We published the accounts of five former athletes because we found them plausible. But our gut was fortified by our background work and the terms under which we profiled these athletes.

Some of the methods that we found helpful, and may be of use to other journalists preparing reports on human rights abuses in foreign countries:

* No anonymous sources or silhouettes. The potential consequences to the athletes of detailing the crimes of Uday Hussein were obvious. Most feared retaliation against family members still in Iraq. Their concerns were real: As punishment for their son defecting during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the parents of weightlifter Raed Ahmed spent two weeks in prison.

Quoting these athletes anonymously might have offered some protection. But it could have impaired the reader's ability to trust the accounts. So, all the athletes we used were identified without restrictions, with the lone exception of Ahmed, who, to minimize any risk to his immediate family, asked that we not disclose the U.S. city where he is now living.

Their willingness to be identified provided accountability: Why make up these stories when your family back home could be harmed? It also allowed readers, and viewers, to get to know these people. In the companion "Outside the Lines" television report, they also saw the sincerity in the faces of athletes like former national team Volleyball player Issam Thamer al-Diwan, whose pleading eyes filled with tears when recalling how Uday would urinate on the bowed, shaven heads of imprisoned athletes.

* Use the libraries of human rights organizations. After we started our investigation, we learned that a human rights group that pursues war crimes against the Hussein regime was preparing a formal complaint to the IOC. …