BAGHDAD // An Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at George W Bush was sentenced yesterday to three years in jail, a judgment that bought chaos to a Baghdad courthouse. Muntadar al Zaidi, 30, became a hero throughout the Arab world when he pitched his two shoes at the former president of the United States on his farewell tour of Iraq in December. He narrowly missed Mr Bush's head. Al Zaidi, a little-known television reporter with Al Baghdadiya, had earlier entered a not guilty plea and told the three-judge panel that his reaction was "a natural response to occupation". Pandemonium ensued when news of the guilty judgment filtered out from the court. A sister of al Zaidi's fell to the floor weeping, supporters surged, like a human wave, towards the court doors jostling with security guards, a bottle of water was broken and a male relative was slapped in the face. A small child became separated from his family and was hoisted to safety.
In the courtroom, al Zaidi, wearing a smart beige suit, dark brown shirt, thin wire-framed glasses and tie, reacted with more decorum, "Long live Iraq", was reported to have been his muted response. The family condemned the trial as an American showpiece. Relatives screamed: "Down with Bush." Family members also shouted, "The prostitutes have more honour [than the court]" and "The Baathists have more honour." The trial started badly for al Zaidi. His newly appointed lawyer, Tareq Hab, stormed out of court after being unable to finish his statement. The judge said he had already seen it. Prosecutors then successfully argued that al Zaidi's confession, which his family insisted was brought on by beatings and torture, warranted his conviction.
The trial began on Feb 19 but was adjourned until yesterday. The defence argued Mr Bush was not on an official visit and the charge should be changed. The judges consulted the prime ministers office to clarify the matter. It had been an official visit, the office reported; the charge stood. The defence team also tried to argue that al Zaidi had insulted, rather than assaulted Bush. This was rejected by the court. Before the verdict was delivered the courtroom was emptied. Al Zaidi's family, supporters and onlookers, who numbered about 150, were forced to stand outside. "I expect 40 per cent he will be freed and 60 per cent he will be put in jail," al Zaidi's brother, Dhergham al Zaidi, 32, said. "He's a hero like [Nelson] Mandela and he was put in jail for 10 years. He is like [Che] Guevara and he was killed," Many believed the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, had instructed the court to pass the guilty judgment. He was at the press conference with Mr Bush when the shoes were thrown and was incensed by the attack.
Um Saad, a sister of al Zaidi's, said: "Maliki is ready to give his wife to Bush just to keep him happy." The incident, in which al Zaidi had shouted: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq," tapped into a vein of anger and resentment felt by many Iraqis toward the US. Al Zaidi garnered widespread sympathy for his actions. In the city of Tikrit, a supersized statue of a shoe was briefly erected. Television stations constantly showed footage of the incident and jokes circulated via text message. "I hate Bush. If it was anyone else it would be bad, but I hate Bush, so it is good," Ali al Khasangi, 36, a lawyer watching the trial, said.
Dia al Saadi, one of al Zaidi's defence lawyer, was adamant the sentence was too harsh. "It was an act of throwing a shoe and not a rocket. It was meant as an insult to the occupation," he said. Abdul Sattar Bayrkdar, a court spokesman, said al Zaidi received the minimum sentence for his crime and that he could have received up to 15 years in prison. He was shown leniency due to his age and clean record. For the al Zaidi family, this was scant compensation. As Um Zaman, al Zaidi's mother, walked away from the court she wailed "My son Muntadar, why did you do it? You've lost three years of your life." firstname.lastname@example.org