BAGHDAD – An Iraqi journalist imprisoned for hurling his shoes at former President George W. Bush will be released next month after his sentence was reduced for good behavior, his lawyer said Saturday.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi’s act of protest during Bush’s last visit to Iraq as president turned the 30-year-old reporter into a folk hero across the Arab world, as his case became a rallying point for critics who resented the 2003 U.S. invasion and occupation.
“Al-Zeidi’s shoes were a suitable farewell for Bush’s deeds in Iraq,” Sunni lawmaker Dhafir al-Ani said in welcoming the early release. “Al-Zeidi’s act expressed the real will and feelings of the Iraqi people. His anger against Bush was the result of the suffering of his countrymen.”
The journalist has been in custody since the Dec. 14 outburst, which occurred as Bush was holding a news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Al-Maliki, who was standing next to Bush at the time, was said to have been deeply offended by the act.
Al-Zeidi was initially sentenced to three years in prison after pleading not guilty to assaulting a foreign leader. The court reduced it to one year because the journalist had no prior criminal history.
Defense attorney Karim al-Shujairi said al-Zeidi will now be released on Sept. 14, three months early.
“We have been informed officially about the court decision,” al-Shujairi told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. “His release will be a victory for the free and honorable Iraqi media.”
Judicial spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said he had no immediate information about the release because it was a weekend.
Followers of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who were among the leaders of many of the demonstrations demanding al-Zeidi’s release, welcomed the decision to free him early.
“We believe that al-Zeidi did not commit any crime but only expressed the will of the Iraqi people in rejecting the U.S. occupation,” Sadrist lawmaker Falah Shanshal said. “Al-Zeidi’s image will always be a heroic one.”
The bizarre act of defiance transformed the obscure reporter from a minor TV station into a national hero to many Iraqis fed up with the U.S. presence.
Thousands demonstrated for al-Zeidi’s release and hailed his gesture. A sofa-sized sculpture of a shoe was erected in his honor in Saddam Hussein‘s hometown of Tikrit, but the Iraqi government later ordered it removed.
Neither leader was injured, but Bush was forced to duck for cover as the journalist shouted in Arabic: “This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”
The case’s investigating judge has said the journalist was struck about the face and eyes, apparently by security agents who wrestled him to the ground and dragged him away.
Al-Zeidi’s family has said he was also mistreated while in custody, although the government has denied the allegation.
“We thank God that he will be released, although we still fear for his safety since he is still in the prison,” his brother Dargham said. “He will be released full of pride and strength from all the love he has received from the Iraqi people and international organizations and figures who advocate freedom.”