BAGHDAD (AP) – A judge announced an investigation Friday into the beating of an Iraqi journalist moments after he threw his shoes at President George W. Bush.
The statement to The Associated Press by Dhia al-Kinani, the judge investigating the incident, was the first official word that Muntadhar al-Zeidi was hurt following his outburst at a news conference by Bush and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. According to the judge, al-Zeidi had a bruised face and eyes.
Al-Zeidi has been in custody since the Sunday incident and hasn’t been seen since by relatives or a lawyer. One of his brothers, Uday, alleged Friday that the isolation indicates he was abused.
“Until now, neither an attorney nor anyone from his family has seen him and this is clear evidence that Muntadhar was under intense torture,” he said at a demonstration by about 20 family members just outside the Green Zone. “The investigation process is now under way in mysterious circumstances.”
Al-Zeidi’s case became a rallying point among opponents of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. An Iranian cleric suggested they should become museum pieces, but al-Kinani said the shoes had been destroyed by investigators.
Thousands of Iraqis demonstrated Friday for al-Zeidi’s release. However, al-Kinani said the case cannot be dropped even though neither Bush nor al-Maliki have sought charges. “This case was filed because of an article in the law concerning the protection of the respect of sovereignty,” he said. The journalist is expected to eventually face charges of insulting a foreign leader. A conviction could bring a sentence of two years in prison.
Al-Zeidi was wrestled to the ground moments after throwing his shoes, and the judge said the videotape of the scuffle would be studied carefully.
Al-Zeidi “was beaten in the news conference and we will watch the tape and write an official letter asking for the names of those who assaulted him,” the judge said. He said al-Zeidi could choose not to pursue charges related to the beating and did not specify why he decided to open an investigation.
The judge also confirmed that al-Zeidi had written a letter of apology to al-Maliki. Iraq’s president can grant pardons that are requested by the prime minister, but the judge said such a pardon can be issued only after a conviction. There have been no indications of the prime minister’s view regarding a pardon request.
A spokesman for al-Maliki said Thursday that the letter contained a specific pardon request. But al-Zeidi’s brother Dhargham told The AP that he suspected the letter was a forgery.
At Friday prayers in Baghdad’s Shiite stronghold Sadr City, cleric Mohanad al-Moussawi told worshippers that “al-Zeidi’s life must be protected and he must be immediately, immediately, immediately released.”
Sadr City protesters also laid down two American flags, hit them with shoes and burned them to protest his detention. And in southern city of Kufa, crowds also protested the claimed arrest by American forces of an official of Momahoudin, a militia led by radical anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that was disbanded and turned into a social welfare group. The U.S. military declined to comment on the alleged arrest.
The judge said the al-Zeidi investigation would be completed and sent to the criminal court on Sunday, after which a court date would be set within seven to 10 days.
In the Iranian capital Tehran, hard-line Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati praised the act at Friday prayers, calling it the “Shoe Intifada.”
Jannati proposed people in Iraq and Iran should carry shoes in further anti-American demonstrations. “This should be a role model,” he said. He also proposed that the shoes themselves should be put in an Iraqi museum. But al-Kinani, the judge, said the shoes had been destroyed by investigators trying to determine if they had contained explosives.
In the West Bank village of Bilin, Palestinians hurled shoes rather than the usual rocks at Israeli soldiers in the weekly Friday protest against the Israeli separation barrier, which slices through their fields.
The head of a large West Bank family meanwhile offered one of its eligible females as a bride for al-Zeidi. The leader, 75-year-old Ahmad Salim Judeh, said that the 500-member clan had raised $30,000 for al-Zeidi’s legal defense.
Also Friday, Iraqi officials appeared to be playing down the arrest of up to 25 people from the three major security ministries on accusations of conspiring to restore the Baath party, which ruled Iraq for 35 years until Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003.
Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul-Karim Khalaf told Iraq’s al-Sharqiya Television that a number of people had been detained following a tip that they were members of al-Awda, the new name for the Baath party.
“So far charges have not been raised against anybody,” he told the station, saying that it was normal to detain people when matters of national security were involved. He had earlier denied reports they may have been involved in a coup plot against the government.
“Such a behavior is not confined to Iraq only, it may happen anywhere in the world. When an issue threatens the security of a country, measures like the ones we did would be taken,” he said, adding that they were being questioned.
“So far, none of them have been proven guilty, and no charge has been raised against them. During the next two or three days, I expect the outcome of the investigation would be disclosed, and we will announce it to the public in a transparent manner,” he said.
Few details about those arrested have been released, but it was difficult to see how the group could represent a serious threat to al-Maliki, especially with nearly 150,000 U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
The Baath party was banned following Saddam’s ouster. The party was founded in Damascus, Syria, in the 1940s as a secular, socialist Arab nationalist movement, and its ranks once included a number of Arab Christian intellectuals.
Later the party split along national lines, and it still rules in Syria.
Also Friday, a Baghdad police official said seven disembodied heads and two complete corpses were found in a deserted building in Sadr City. The victims appeared to have been killed about two years ago, the officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to news media.