/ 15 September 2009

Iraq shoe-thrower to walk free

Muntazer al-Zaidi, the television reporter jailed for throwing his shoes at former United States president George Bush, is finally expected to become a free man on Tuesday, ending a nine-month stint in prison.

Zaidi has been behind bars ever since he shouted ”it is the farewell kiss, you dog,” at Bush on December 14 last year, seconds before hurling his size-10s at the man who ordered Iraq be invaded and occupied six and a half years ago.

The 30-year-old reporter was due to have been released on Monday but his brothers and sisters were left in tears when legal red tape delayed his homecoming, with many friends and well-wishers also left disappointed.

”We expect him to be released in the next few hours,” Durgham al-Zaidi, one of the reporter’s brothers, told AFP on Tuesday.

Although Zaidi’s prison time has expired, Iraqi inmates often see their liberty held-up for several extra days to allow the necessary prison release documents to be signed and approved.

The reporter was initially sentenced to three years for assaulting a foreign head of state but had his jail time reduced to one year on appeal. His sentence was cut further on account of good behaviour.

Zaidi’s family were waiting at home on Tuesday for word from the reporter’s lawyer that the necessary paperwork had been completed, allowing him to be freed.

Although Bush, who successfully ducked to avoid the speeding footwear, laughed off the attack, the incident caused massive embarrassment, to both him and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

The leaders had been speaking at a joint press conference in Baghdad on what was Bush’s farewell visit to Iraq prior to being succeeded in office by then president-elect Barack Obama.

When released, Zaidi faces the prospect of a very different life from his previous existence as a journalist for Al-Baghdadia television, a small, privately-owned Cairo-based station, which continued to pay his salary in jail.

Zaidi’s boss has promised the previously little-known reporter a new home as a reward for loyalty and the publicity that his actions, broadcast live across the world, generated for the station.

But there is talk of plum job offers from bigger Arab networks, lavish gifts such as sports cars from businessmen, guaranteed celebrity status, and reports that Arab women from Baghdad to the Gaza Strip want his hand in marriage.

Zaidi, who hails from Iraq’s Shiite majority, was kidnapped in Baghdad and held by unknown captors for three days in 2007 and then detained for one day by US forces at the beginning of 2008, according to his brother.

Such experiences, said friends at the time of his arrest, at least partly explained the vehemence of his actions against Bush.

Zaidi also told the judge at his trial that he had been beaten up several times since being taken into custody last year.

The publicity that Zaidi garnered, however, means he is likely to be meet by both adulation and bemusement among his countrymen, who were divided by his shoe-throwing gesture, considered a grave insult in the Arab and Muslim world.

Zaidi’s actions also inspired a British student, Alex Tew, to create a ”Sock and Awe” (www.sockandawe.com) shoe-throwing website, which says it has so far had almost 100-million hits in the face of ex-president Bush on the internet. — AFP