Hussein-Era Videos Released to Contrast Prison Scandal
By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 21, 2004; Page A21
Video images of brutal treatment of prisoners by Saddam Hussein's government resurfaced this week as part of an effort by some members of the Bush administration and Congress to remind viewers in Iraq and the United States of the previous horrors.
Scenes of floggings, forced amputations and a beheading were distributed to a small number of news organizations in the hope that viewers and readers would see the U.S. invasion of Iraq more favorably and draw a sharp contrast with abuses by American troops, said an administration official who described the publicity effort.
The administration has wanted to "demonstrate the true nature of Saddam's regime, but it's unknown through most of Western Europe and even in the United States," said the official, who requested anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity. "What's really surprising is it's even unknown in parts of Iraq."
The video reached news outlets, including The Washington Post, as senior spokesmen for the Bush administration began to express frustration that the treatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. troops had overshadowed well-documented human rights horrors of the Hussein era.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said last weekend there "should be a higher level of outrage" at the recent decapitation of American job-seeker Nicholas Berg by masked kidnappers in Iraq. He also said there should be closer scrutiny of torture in other Arab societies.
"We have international standards that have to be maintained," Powell told "Fox News Sunday." "And those standards don't just apply to the United States of America; they apply to all civilized countries -- or countries claiming to be civilized."
Al Hurra, an Iraqi television station backed by the U.S. government, broadcast video excerpts on Wednesday. They included commentary from former Iraqi prisoners, plus a discussion of the Hussein era and what one guest called "most despicable" acts by U.S. forces.
Mouafac Harb, the network news director of Al Hurra, said yesterday that he was provided with the video images on Monday. He would say only that his source was not a government official. The scenes seemed authentic and the topic newsworthy, Harb said.
"I was approached with a tape, which I had not seen before," said Harb, who also serves as news director of Radio Sawa, a U.S.-sponsored radio station in the Middle East. "I had not seen on the popular Arabic satellite channels any program like this."
Harb said the station has done many shows on the persecution of Iraqi prisoners at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison, a scandal that has provoked fury and charges of American hypocrisy in the Muslim world.
"We have to be balanced," Harb said. "This was the first time we had been able to tell that story in Arabic to an Arab audience."
The excerpts on Al Hurra showed prisoners being punished or tortured by black-masked members of Saddam's Fedayeen, an elite militia controlled by Hussein. Prisoners were shown being flogged and having fingers chopped off. One is shown being thrown from a roof, another about to be beheaded by a man wielding a sword.
The full video shows the beheading and a man placing the severed head on the victim's prone body. Another scene shows a man's tongue being cut out.
Fox News first broadcast excerpts in October, saying the video had been given to U.S. soldiers by an Iraqi who said he had filmed the punishment for the Iraqi Republican Guard. A Fox reporter noted that the Pentagon was working to declassify such evidence.
Tom Malinowski, a Human Rights Watch analyst who viewed excerpts for Fox, said yesterday that "absolutely we should remind people that this is what Saddam did, and that it's a good thing that Saddam is no longer there to do this."
But Malinowski is skeptical that the video's release will ease the administration's troubles over the abuse photographed by soldiers at Abu Ghraib.
"Simply reminding the world that Saddam was evil," Malinowski said, "is not going to diminish the impact of these pictures from Abu Ghraib. The United States, unlike Saddam, is a standard-setter."
The Al Hurra program featured a debate between London-based human rights activist Abdul Sahib Hakim and Jordanian lawyer Ziad Khasawna, who said he intends to defend Hussein in front of a planned war-crimes tribunal.
"Saddam was the president of a gang. He was a killer," Hakim said. Khasawna focused on the record of the U.S. occupation.
"The United States is a superpower and claims to maintain freedom, democracy and human rights -- and that it came to Iraq to support the Iraqi people," Khasawna said. "The coalition and the U.S. administration should do many things to make the Iraqi people happy, but they instead did the opposite."
Staff writer Sewell Chan and special correspondent Bassam Sabti in Baghdad and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company