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3 years for Iraqi who threw shoes

THE Iraqi journalist who threw shoes at then-United States President George W. Bush was convicted yesterday of assaulting a foreign leader and sentenced to three years in prison, provoking outrage among some Iraqis who consider him a hero.

Muntadhar al-Zeidi's bold act last December electrified many across the Middle East who hailed his defiant act against a president who was widely reviled for his policies in the region, including the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.

The 30-year-old journalist pleaded not guilty to the assault charge, telling the three-judge panel that "what I did was a natural response to the occupation."

Reporters and family members were then ordered out of the courtroom for the verdict, which was relayed to them by defense attorneys and a court official. Defense lawyers said al-Zeidi shouted "long live Iraq" when the sentence was imposed.

Some of al-Zeidi's relatives collapsed after the ruling was issued and had to be helped out of the courthouse. Others were forcibly removed by guards after shouting "down with Bush" and "long live Iraq."

"This judiciary is not just," al-Zeidi's brother Dargham said tearfully after the verdict was announced.

Court spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said al-Zeidi received the minimum sentence for the assault charge but could appeal the conviction. He could have received up to 15 years in prison for hurling his shoes at Bush during a December 14 news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Defense lawyers said the judge showed leniency because of al-Zeidi's age and clean record. But they had hoped for an even lighter sentence, arguing the journalist's actions constituted an insult rather than an assault.

"The sentence was unexpectedly harsh," said Yehya al-Eitabi, one of some two dozen defense lawyers who attended yesterday's hearing. He said they would appeal the verdict.

"Al-Zeidi should have been honored and not sent to prison," said Salam Omar, who owns a mobile phone shop in Baghdad.

Nassir al-Saadi, a Shiite law maker loyal to anti-US cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said the verdict was too harsh.

"Al-Zeidi was expressing his point of view about Bush in a democratic way. The court should have adopted a more humane approach and released him," he said.

But Serwan Gharaib, a 37-year-old journalist in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, said al-Zeidi had violated journalistic ethics by exploiting his access to Bush.

"I may understand the suffering of the Iraqi people due to the occupation, but I do not understand the bizarre method of protest conducted by al-Zeidi," he said.


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