BAGHDAD — An Iraqi court Thursday sentenced television journalist Muntathar al Zaidi to three years in prison for throwing his shoes at former U.S. President George W. Bush.
The decision by Iraq's Central Criminal Court provoked an outcry among those at the trial. "Hero, hero, Muntathar. God is great," a group of relatives chanted.
Zaidi's immediate family wept on hearing the sentence. His brother Udai accused the court of being Americanized. "This was expected from an Americanized court," he said. "We don't feel sorry for Muntathar, we only feel sorry for Americanized Iraq."
Zaidi, who reports for the satellite channel al Baghdadiyah, threw his shoes at Bush during the former president's final media appearance with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in December. "This is the farewell kiss, dog," Zaidi shouted as he threw the first shoe.
Bush ducked nimbly. Zaidi threw the second shoe, and Bush ducked again. Later, the president joked that he'd noticed that the shoes were a size 9. He also said the incident reflected the new freedom of expression that had taken hold in Iraq.
To Muslims in many countries, it wasn't a joke but an act of defiance against what's widely seen as an oppressive American presence in Iraq and throughout the region.
In his first court appearance last month, Zaidi almost bounced into the courtroom. On Thursday, however, arriving under heavy guard, he almost stumbled in, exhausted and looking worried, and no longer wearing an Iraqi flag scarf.
Chief Judge Abdul-Amir al Rubaie started the proceedings by reading a ruling that Bush's visit had been an official visit of state, implying that Zaidi could be sentenced under criminal law.
Tariq Harb, a leading defense attorney, urged the court instead to follow Bush's words and consider the incident an act of democratic expression.
"There should be no case without the approval of the prime minister, which didn't happen. I trust the justice of the Iraq judiciary, but I can't ignore the law," he said.
Dhia al Saadi, who headed the defense team, told the court that Zaidi had committed an action "meant to insult, not attack, the U.S. president."
Saadi added that his client had a right under international law to "fight the occupier" and that his "patriotic motives" shouldn't be overlooked. He admitted that Zaidi had broken the work rules for journalists. Saadi insisted, however, that this was an issue for the journalists union, not the courts.
Zaidi's sentencing came the same week that a car bomb killed two of his co-workers as they covered a national reconciliation conference in Abu Ghraib.
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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