Iraq’s chamber of horrors: An encounter with Saddam’s former chief scientific adviser

December 1997: Robert Fisk meets Dr Hossein Shahristani, a survivor of Saddam Hussein’s regime of systematic torture

Sunday 12 December 2021 00:25
<p>The dictator attends a court established to investigate crimes against the Iraqi people </p>

The dictator attends a court established to investigate crimes against the Iraqi people

When I ask Dr Hossein Shahristani what he thinks of Saddam Hussein, he recalls at once the day in 1979 when the Iraqi dictator marched into the offices of the Atomic Energy Organisation in Baghdad. When Saddam ordered his scientists to start work on nuclear weapons, Shahristani – who was Saddam’s chief scientific adviser – protested that this would violate Iraq’s signature on the Non Proliferation Treaty.

A diminutive figure with frameless spectacles, his Canadian wife standing beside him in Islamic hijab, Shahristani turns to me in my grubby downtown Tehran hotel and bangs his finger into my chest, his words fierce and passionate – Saddam-like in their intensity. “Saddam pointed his finger at me like this, and he said: ‘You are a scientist; I am a politician. Do you know what politics is? I will tell you what politics is about: I take a decision. I tell people I am going to do the opposite, then I do something that surprises even me.’”

There was silence in the foyer of the hotel. Shahristani understood the message of his little story. Was this, I wondered, how Saddam invaded Iran a year later, or Kuwait a decade later, a sleepwalker following his own terrible destiny? Shahristani shrugged his shoulders. Within months, he was in the torture chambers of Iraq’s security police; he only escaped from his tormentors 11 years later, during Allied air raids on Baghdad. He tells his story dispassionately, in detail and it is one of horror and fear and terrible pain.

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