BAGHDAD, Iraq – A Baghdad judge ruled Thursday that an Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at former President George W. Bush was guilty of assaulting a foreign leader and sentenced him to three years in prison, a verdict that unleashed tumult in the courtroom.
“Long live Iraq!” shouted the television journalist, Muntadhar al-Zeidi, as the sentence was handed down.
Smiling and waving, the 30-year-old al-Zeidi was escorted afterward from the dilapidated courthouse in the Green Zone, where a crowd had gathered outside the courtroom doors. His sister collapsed on the floor in tears and police hustled two of his brothers out of the building after the verdict was heard.
“You’re a hero, Muntadhar!” some shouted. “Down with Bush!” others cried.
“The judge were puppets sitting in the court,” one brother, Dhurgham, said.
Al-Zeidi became a folk hero of sorts in the Arab world after hurling both shoes at Bush, with considerable speed and accuracy, during a news conference Dec. 14. Bush, a nimble athlete with great reflexes, successfully ducked.
“This is your farewell kiss, you dog!” al-Zeidi had shouted as he threw the footwear. “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”
Al-Zeidi faced up to 15 years in prison, but his lawyers said the judges decided to show leniency because of his age and lack of prior convictions.
Escorted by police to the defendant’s seat, al-Zeidi wore the same brown leather shoes and beige suit as he did in the opening court session last month.
Unlike that session, when he said Bush’s “smile with no spirit” provoked him to act, he offered only a short statement Thursday, answering the judge as to his innocence or guilt.
“I am innocent,” he said. “What I did was a natural response to the occupation.”
Al-Zeidi’s lawyers argued that he was only expressing himself, without criminal intentions.
“It wasn’t a rocket,” said Dhia Saadi, the chief defense attorney, who said his client’s team would appeal Thursday’s decision. “It was a shoe.”
The tumult spilled out of the court building and into the streets, where al-Zeidi’s family denounced Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his American allies. His mother, Um Zaman, sobbed as she walked from the courtroom to the entrance of the Green Zone.
“My son, Muntadhar. Why did you do it? You’ve lost three years of your life.”
His siblings were angrier, as the crowd and police pushed and shoved each other. “Maliki is ready to give his wife to Bush just to keep him happy,” a sister said.