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Page last updated at 13:04 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

Iraqi jailed for Bush shoe attack

Muntadar al-Zaidi (file image)
Mr Zaidi's lawyers say he was making a legitimate protest

An Iraqi journalist hailed as a hero in the Arab world for throwing his shoes at the then US President George W Bush has been jailed for three years.

Muntadar al-Zaidi had told the court his actions in December were "natural, just like any Iraqi" against a leader whose forces had occupied his country.

Shoe hurling is a grave insult in Arab culture, but Mr Bush - on a farewell trip to Iraq - shrugged off the attack.

Defence lawyers described the sentence as "harsh" and said they would appeal.

The head of Zaidi's team Dhiaa al-Saadi said the sentence was "not in harmony with the law" because his client had not meant to cause injury, but rather to express contempt for Mr Bush.

There has been no statement about the verdict from the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, which correspondents say suffered acute embarrassment over the incident.

'Response to occupation'

The BBC's Mike Sergeant who was at Thursday's court hearing says relatives and supporters of the defendant came to court expecting him to be released.

Asked by presiding judge Abdul-Amir al-Rubaie if he was innocent or guilty, Zaidi replied: "I am innocent. What I did was a natural response to the occupation."

After the final arguments by the defence lawyers, everyone was told to leave the room. The judges deliberated for a further 15 minutes, and an increasingly frustrated crowd gathered outside.

When news of the sentence filtered through, some relatives began to cry and scream insults at the judges.

They shouted "It's an American court", "He's a hero", "Down with President Bush" and "God is great".

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Footage of the shoe hurling incident

One report says Zaidi shouted "long live Iraq" as the verdict against him was read out.

In mid-December 2008, a news conference with Mr Bush and Mr Maliki was drawing to a close when Zaidi, of al-Baghdadiya TV, called Mr Bush "a dog" and threw his shoes as "a farewell kiss" from Iraqis who had been killed, orphaned or widowed since the US-led invasion.

He was overpowered and arrested. His actions were condemned by the Iraqi government as "shameful".

But the shoe attack, at a the globally televised news conference, were celebrated across the world by critics of the the outgoing US president who ordered the 2003 invasion of the Iraq.

In an opinion poll carried out for the BBC and ABC - the full results of which appear next Monday - 62% of Iraqis considered Zaidi a "hero".

Twenty-four percent of the sample viewed him as "criminal", while 10% agreed he was a hero and criminal equally.

Lesser charge

Since his arrest, his lawyers say Zaidi has been beaten and tortured, although he appeared in good shape at court hearings.

Defence lawyers had argued that since the shoes did not hit Mr Bush, Zaidi should not be charged with assault against a foreign head of state on an official visit, under article of 223 of Iraq's penal code.

I had the feeling that the blood of innocent people was dropping on my feet during the time that he was smiling and coming to say bye-bye to Iraq with a dinner
Muntadar al-Zaidi

He faced five-to-15 years if jailed for that crime, but would only have risked one-to-five years if charged with attempted assault of a foreign leader.

There has been no confirmation from the court, but it appears Zaidi was found guilty of the lesser charge.

Judges adjourned the trial on 19 February to rule on whether Mr Bush's surprise arrival in Baghdad in December had constituted an official visit.

Judge Abdulamir Hassan al-Rubaie told the court that government ministers had declared the visit official.

Lawyers had unsuccessfully argued that Zaidi should be tried under article 227 of the penal code, covering public humiliation of a representative of a foreign country, which carries a two-year jail term.

At the earlier court hearing, Zaidi said he had been unable to control his emotions when Mr Bush had said in Arabic "thank you very much" to the assembled journalists.

"I had the feeling that the blood of innocent people was dropping on my feet during the time that he was smiling and coming to say bye-bye to Iraq with a dinner," he said.

In an interview afterwards, Mr Bush described the incident as "interesting", "weird" and "unusual", but he insisted he didn't harbour any ill feeling about it.

"It was amusing - I've seen a lot of weird things during my presidency, and this may rank up there as one of the weirdest," Mr Bush said.



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