Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the Iraqi man who threw his shoes at former President George Bush, told a judge Thursday that he acted as he did because he was outraged that Bush appeared oblivious to the fate of thousands of Iraqis who died during the U.S-led war and occupation.
It was the first time the 30-year-old television reporter has been able to speak out in public since his arrest Dec. 14, on charges of assaulting a visiting foreign leader.
Zeidi's trial has been adjourned until March 12, while court officials examine technical issues regarding the nature of the former president's visit — issues that could determine the seriousness of Zeidi's actions.
Start To The Trial
On the stand, Zeidi said he was filled with outrage when Bush began to speak at a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He said he felt the American leader was boasting about his victories and achievements in Iraq, with no consideration for Iraqis who had been killed, injured or displaced.
"At that moment, I saw no one but Bush," Zeidi said, "and I was feeling as if the blood of innocent people was boiling in me.... I felt that person was the major killer of my people, so I tried to bring back even a small amount of dignity to my people."
The reporter also insisted that he had not insulted a guest of the Iraqi government, because Bush was not an invited visitor.
"He came here suddenly, without asking anyone," Zeidi said. "Secondly, a guest cannot give orders to anyone, but Bush was giving orders to everyone, just like he owned the place."
Zeidi argued that as commander of the occupying forces, Bush was in control of Iraq "so there's no way to consider him a guest in this place he controls."
The trial, in Baghdad's Central Criminal Court, began decorously as more than a dozen members of Zeidi's family stood quietly in the lobby, holding signs calling the reporter a hero and demanding his release.
Zeidi's brother-in-law Abbas Abdul Zaahra said, "What Muntadhar did was excellent. President Bush deserved to be insulted for what he's done to Iraq."
As family members filed into their seats in the front row of the courtroom, one of the men urged them not to cry when the prisoner appeared, saying it would only upset him. A police officer told them not to call out to Muntadhar or try to talk with him, then added "and may God make it easy on him."
But when Zeidi was brought into the room, family members broke into applause and women ululated to welcome him. Some chanted a Shiite blessing: "Ali be with you!"
The reporter was wearing a dark sports jacket, with a scarf colored like the Iraqi flag draped around his neck.
Iraqi Lawyers Flock To Zeidi's Defense
Police added extra chairs behind the defense table to accommodate some 20 volunteer lawyers who wanted to be part of the defense team, which is led by the president of the Iraqi Bar Association.
In a speech to the court, the defense leader said that Zeidi's action was psychologically motivated and that it was a legitimate act of nationalist free speech.
The court then called a witness to attest to what is probably among the most widely seen recent events in the world. The witness, an official of Maliki's office of ceremonies, described watching as Zeidi stood up among the journalists covering the news conference and threw first one shoe, then the other at the American leader's head.
In traditional Arab society, striking someone with a shoe is considered one of the most humiliating insults.
The official also testified that he heard Zeidi call Bush a "dog," another ferocious insult in Arab culture. The scene, which included Bush ducking to avoid the shoes, was shown on television around the world, and it made Zeidi something of a folk hero in many Arab countries.
It was on cross-examination that the defense raised what may be its key argument: that Bush's visit was not official and that he could not be considered a guest of the government.
The official from the office of ceremonies acknowledged that Bush was not on a formal state visit, but insisted "he was a guest. A guest is a guest."
Zeidi: American Security Was Offensive
The judge then turned the questioning to Zeidi himself, asking how the reporter got access to the press conference. Zeidi said he used his credentials as a reporter for al-Baghdadiya television channel and passed through various checkpoints and body searches before entering the room.
He said he found it offensive and provocative when American security officials ordered the reporters back out of the room and insisted on searching them again.
Zeidi said the American search was conducted in "an insulting way" and that he also was offended that the Americans issued White House press tags to the reporters before they were allowed back in, something that he regarded as a violation of Iraqi sovereignty.
Zeidi also alleged that he was badly beaten by the security men who tackled him after the shoe-throwing incident and that he was tortured with beatings and electric shocks during the first days of his incarceration.
He said it was under torture that he had admitted planning a similar demonstration against the American president in 2006, when Bush held a news conference in the Jordanian capital, Amman. Zeidi said he never actually attended that news conference and that the incident in December was not related to his original plan.
The judge appeared to take the legal question of Bush's guest status seriously, and he ordered the trial adjourned until March 12, while court officials ask the Iraqi Cabinet just what kind of visit the American president had made.
Defense officials have said that Zeidi could face as many as 15 years in prison if he's convicted on the original charges.