Shoe-Throwing Iraqi Journalist Given Three-Year Sentence


The Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at George Bush, gaining instant hero status in much of the Arab world, has today been sentenced to three years in prison.

Muntazer al-Zaidi, 30, who worked for the al-Baghdadiya television channel, shouted "Long live Iraq" when the sentence was read out.

Zaidi had earlier pleaded not guilty and said his actions were a "natural response to the occupation".

He was given the three-year sentence for assaulting a foreign head of state during an official visit.

After the verdict was announced, his relatives erupted in anger, shouting that the decision was unjust and unfair. Some collapsed and had to be helped from the court. Others were forcibly removed by security forces as they shouted "Down with Bush" and "Long live Iraq".

"This judiciary is not just," Zaidi's brother Dargham said. Another brother, Uday, said the verdict was politically motivated. The journalist's sister, Ruqaiya, burst into tears, shouting: "Down with Maliki, the agent of the Americans," referring to the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

Zaidi's lawyers said he would appeal against the sentence. He had denied charges of aggression against a foreign head of state as his trial resumed after a three-week hiatus. Under a Saddam Hussein-era law, he could have faced up to 15 years in prison. Defense lawyers said the judge showed leniency because of Zaidi's age and clean record.

The journalist has been in custody since throwing his shoes at the then US president during a news conference on 14 December; Bush ducked to avoid being hit and Zaidi was bundled to the ground by guards.

During today's proceedings, Zaidi walked to the wooden pen in which defendants are kept and greeted the panel of three judges with a nod and a wave. He was dressed in a faded beige suit and though noticeably thinner than in his first court appearance he appeared fit and well.

The presiding judge, Abdul-Amir al-Rubaie, asked Zaidi whether he was innocent or guilty. "I am innocent," Zaidi said. "What I did was a natural response to the occupation."

Zaidi, who seemed nervous throughout, began to restate his defense from the first session of the trial, saying that he had not "intended to kill Bush or humiliate him." He explained that when he saw "the occupiers' president" smiling, he "imagined millions of Iraqis killed every moment at Bush's orders." His testimony was then interrupted by the judge, who told him to keep quiet unless he had anything new to say.

The trial took place under heavy guard, with armed policemen inside the court building and Iraqi soldiers outside. The courtroom was packed with relatives and supporters of the accused, as well as journalists, MPs and human rights observers. Several U.S. diplomats were also reported to have turned up.

The trial began on 19 February but was adjourned until today as the judges considered a defense argument that the charge was not applicable because Bush was not in Baghdad on an official visit, having arrived unannounced without an invitation.

However, Rubaie read a response from the prime minister's office that said the visit had been official.

The chief defense lawyer, Dhia al-Saadi, demanded that the charge be dismissed, saying his client's action "was an expression of freedom and does not constitute a crime".

"It was an act of throwing a shoe and not a rocket," he said. "It was meant as an insult to the occupation."

In his previous court appearance in February, Zaidi, draped in an Iraqi flag, told the court how his anger had boiled over as he watched Bush "smiling that icy smile" while standing next to Maliki.

Bush spoke of "progress" in Iraq since 2003 and the leaders having dinner together.

"I thought about what the achievements were -- killing about a million Iraqis," Zaidi said. "I saw only Bush and it was like something black in my eyes." The journalist took off his shoes and threw them at Bush. The throwing of shoes is considered an insult in the Muslim world. He also shouted: "It is the farewell kiss, you dog."

Some Iraqi officials regarded Zaidi's actions as an insult to the Iraqi state. Zaidi has been criticized by fellow Iraqi journalists, who said he had allowed his emotions to overcome his professionalism. However, many ordinary Iraqis said the journalist had already served his punishment and should be released.

A poll released today, commissioned by ABC News and the BBC, suggests 62% of Iraqis regard the shoe-thrower as a hero. Twenty-four percent of respondents saw him as a criminal who had assaulted a visiting head of state.

Outside the court, Mohammed Ali, a childhood friend of Zaidi, said: "His act was not a crime but one of defiance. When he is eventually released I expect Muntazer could change his career and become a politician."

Prior to the start of the trial, Zaidi claimed he had been beaten and tortured while in custody.

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