Iraqi Shoe Thrower Gets 3 Years In Prison

The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at former President George W. Bush during a news conference in Baghdad last December was sentenced to three years in prison on Thursday.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now we know the price for throwing a shoe at the president of the United States: 18 months per shoe. A man who threw both shoes at President Bush during a news conference last December went on trial today and was found guilty and was sentenced to a total of three years in prison.

We go now to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who was at the trial in Baghdad today.

How did it happen?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, all of a sudden, we were led out of the courtroom after the final arguments were made and the judges were confirmed. Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the journalist who threw the shoes at President Bush, was led back into the courtroom, and then it filtered out that he had been given a sentence of three years.

The scene then became extremely chaotic, Steve. His family was standing outside the doors. When the news filtered out, they started screaming and crying. Down, down Nouri al-Maliki, they cried, referring to the Iraqi prime minister. Down with the Iraqi court. The judges are American agents, cried another. One woman fell to the floor.

Al-Zeidi was then led out of the courtroom. There were scuffles as people tried to get near him. I have to say he looked unperturbed. He waved. He smiled. People called out to him, hero, hero, as he was led away.

INSKEEP: We should mention this is a guy who was praised, rightly or wrongly, throughout much of the Islamic world and caused more than a few chuckles in the United States.

Was it expected that the sentence would be three years?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No. I mean, it wasn't really known what kind of sentence he was going to get. He could've gotten the death sentence. He could've gotten a sentence as harsh as 15 years, or he could've been let go. Three years, it seems, is a sort of median sentencing.

But this story is by no means over. This will be appealed. He will be back in court again, which is perhaps why he was smiling on his way out. This is by no means over.

During the trial, his defense tried to argue that he had been provoked by President Bush's smiling face during his visit. They said that Muntadhar al-Zeidi was defending the honor of his country and was acting as a patriot. They said even the American president said his action was a sign of Iraqi's freedom of expression. So, they argued, how could it be a crime if the victim doesn't consider it one? However, the court today clearly did not support those lines of reasoning, and he was indeed sentenced for three years.

INSKEEP: I'd like to back away from the courtroom here a moment. Obviously, there were supporters of the journalist in the courtroom, and they had a dramatic demonstration there. But when you look outside that immediate circle of supporters, is this a man who has a wide political following or a lot of support across Iraq?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He is a man who has a lot of support across Iraq. As his defense said, he didn't throw a rocket at Bush. He didn't launch a rocket at Bush. He expressed his protest by throwing a pair of shoes at President Bush. If you'll remember, he said this is a kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog. This is for the widows and orphans of Iraq.

And many people see what he did as a real act of patriotism, and there's a lot of support for him on the Iraqi street. Some people do feel that it was a dishonor, that it embarrassed Iraqis, his action, because there's a great feeling of hospitality in the Arab world. When someone is visiting you as your guest, you're always supposed to show them gracious hospitality. That obviously didn't happen on President Bush's last visit with this action.

But by and large, when you speak to people on the street they do feel that his action was warranted and that he somehow expressed some of the frustrations of the Iraqi people. They say he didn't take a violent action. He simply threw his shoes, many people say. So they do support him, by and large.

INSKEEP: Lourdes, you mentioned that this sentence is stricter than his supporters would like, but a lot lighter than it could've been. Is there any sense that politics may have played a role in the judge's decision?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's very difficult to know if political pressure was brought to bear on this case. It's obviously been hugely high profile - a lot of press there today, a lot of scrutiny about exactly how this was being taken care of, what conditions Muntadhar al-Zeidi's been held. He is someone who is very well-known throughout the world. And, of course, this case will be scrutinized very closely. So it's very difficult to say, but probably not.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is in Baghdad.

Lourdes, always good to talk with you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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