Accessibility links

Iraq: Grisly Photos Of Hussein's Sons Spark Ethical Concerns

  • Antoine Blua

The U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority yesterday released photographs showing bloodied bodies identified as Saddam Hussein's two sons, Qusay and Uday. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has defended the move as a "very clear signal to the Iraqis that the Hussein family is finished." RFE/RL looks at skeptical reactions and ethical concerns being raised by the decision.

Prague, 25 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. says Saddam Hussein's two sons, Qusay and Uday, were killed on 22 July in a gun battle with U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul.

The U.S. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) yesterday released photographs showing what it says are the bloodied bodies of the two brothers in an effort to prove they were killed. Photos of the bodies were distributed to the press in Baghdad, and quickly found their way to television stations and newspapers around the world.

While the authenticity of the photographs is being met with skepticism by many Iraqis, the decision by the U.S. to release them to the press is also being questioned. The issue also forced many news organization to make difficult ethical decisions about how best to present the images to their audiences.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday that the decision to release the photographs was difficult, but that he believes it was the right one. "These two individuals [Uday and Qusay] are particularly vicious individuals. They are now dead. We know that. They have been carefully identified. The Iraqi people have been waiting for confirmation of that and they, in my view, deserve having confirmation of that," he said.

Responding to a reporter who had noted the U.S. military's strong objections when photos of dead U.S. solders were shown in Iraq early in the war, Rumsfeld said: "The more I thought about the importance of having the Iraqi people gain conviction that that crowd [the Hussein regime] is through, and the fact that it could reduce the number of Americans and coalition people who might be killed, and it could increase the number of people who will come forward with information and give us intelligence as to where the remainder of these people are, and where conceivably it'll reduce the number of recruits and jihadists coming into the country because they'll find it's a less hospitable environment than they might have thought, that seems to me to outweigh the sensitivities."

A group of hooded gunmen holding rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles and describing themselves as Saddam's Fedayeen militia vowed to avenge the deaths yesterday in a video broadcast on Dubai-based Al-Arabiya television. Five U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq since the raid on 22 July.

Kamal Samari is a spokesperson for Amnesty International, a prominent London-based human rights watchdog group. He explained the position of his organization about what it calls the "political judgment" made by U.S. authorities to release the pictures. "It is true that there is no explicit prohibition in the laws of war to show pictures of dead bodies. However, the spirit of the rules is that the dignity of everyone -- dead or alive, be they Iraqis, United States nationals, British or others -- must be respected. And on this basis we believe that it had been preferable if the pictures had not been shown," he said.

Meanwhile, since the photos were released late yesterday, news organizations worldwide have been debating how to treat the images.

Most satellite television networks, such as CNN, broadcast the gruesome images as soon as they were provided. The pictures were also published on the websites of most TV stations and newspapers, but readers were usually warned about their graphic nature before being allowed to view them.

Anthony Loewftedt works at the Vienna-based International Press Institute, a nongovernmental organization that seeks to improve the standards and practices of journalism. He told RFE/RL that two opposing principles make the issue problematic. "The sons of Saddam Hussein are important people in recent history. So the public has a right to know about what's happened to them and how it happened. That's the principle which says that you should publish them. The principle that says you shouldn't publish such close-up photos of fatal wounds is bad taste. There is something pornographic about it that can cause people to gloat over the pictures," Loewftedt said.

Loewftedt praised those media outlets that came up with interesting compromise solutions about how to treat the photographs. "On public German television ARD this morning, [there] was a picture of the dead bodies, but so small and so far in the background behind the news anchor that it didn't have this pornographic effect. You didn't really see the nature of the wounds. And I think that was a good way of dealing with it," he said.

But in the end, Loewftedt said, the media should not be criticized for publishing the photos. The responsibility lies with the U.S. government, he said, which decided to make the photographs legitimate news by distributing them. But he warned that the decision could backfire on the U.S.

"The military was understandably very reluctant to show the photos because they feel that this will set a very bad precedent. If U.S. soldiers are killed in the future, these soldiers may be shown on TV by media for the same reasons that Saddam Hussein's sons were shown by the media now," Loewftedt said.

Despite the pictures, however, many Iraqis remain skeptical that the feared brothers are really dead. The lack of newspapers on Friday, the traditional Muslim day of prayer, is fueling the skepticism in Iraq, where the vast majority of Iraqis have no access to television or the Internet.

Baghdad gas-station employee Mohsen Mallah told AFP that the facial swelling, heavy beards, and extent of the injuries depicted in the photographs make it impossible to prove the pictures are really those of the two brothers.

AFP reported that in Mosul, a few dozen Iraqis gathered around the shell of the house in which the two brothers took refuge. Shabib Hassom said: "There is no clear evidence. We think they were just some innocent people there."

Still, some were confident the photographs were authentic. Hassan Fadr al-Saadi said, "Both are 100 percent them." In Baghdad, Sabah Shiyal told Reuters: "It's a big joy and ecstasy to see the pictures of them dead. We hope that the big boss [Saddam Hussein] will be captured."

The U.S. military took journalists today to view and further photograph the two bodies in an effort to dispel any lingering doubts.

XS
SM
MD
LG