BAGHDAD, (AP) – The Iraqi journalist who threw shoes at former President George W. Bush will face trial Feb. 19 on the original charge of assaulting a foreign leader, a judicial official said Sunday.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi, 30, who is considered a hero by many Iraqis for his protest, has been in custody since the Dec. 14 outburst at Bush’s joint news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
He had been due to face a trial in December on a charge of assaulting a foreign leader but his defense team won a delay as it sought to reduce the charges to simply insulting Bush.
But Bayrkdar told The Associated Press that the trial will begin on Feb. 19 and the charge of assaulting a foreign leader will stand.
The case became a focus for Iraqis and others in the Muslim world who resent the U.S. invasion and occupation. Thousands demonstrated for al-Zeidi’s release and hailed his gesture, which came in the waning days of the Bush administration.
But it also embarrassed al-Maliki, who was standing next to Bush at the time. Neither leader was injured.
The judicial spokesman refused to say what penalties al-Zeidi could face if convicted, saying “it’s up to the court.” The defense has said the assault charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
“We were hoping that the charges would be reduced before the start of court proceedings,” said Abdul-Hamid al-Saeh, al-Zeidi’s employer and the Cairo-based director of al-Baghdadia satellite channel.
“We stress again that Muntadhar’s case puts before the government a challenge that any democratic state must deal when it comes to an expression of opinion,” he told The Associated Press by telephone.
Al-Zeidi’s brother, Dhargham, said the family has not yet been informed of the trial date.
He also reiterated complaints that relatives and lawyers have been denied access to al-Zeidi, saying authorities turned down the family’s request to meet with al-Zeidi on Thursday.
“This court works according to orders from the Cabinet,” the brother said, expressing fear that al-Zeidi could face the death penalty. “He has been deprived of his simplest rights.”
Al-Zeidi’s family claims he was beaten and tortured in detention.
The case’s investigating judge has said the journalist was struck about the face and eyes, apparently by security agents who wrestled him to the floor after he hurled his shoes, forcing Bush to duck for cover.
One brother who visited al-Zeidi last month said he appeared in good shape and his wounds had healed.