'Shoe-thrower' reporter's release from prison delayed

Muntazer al-Zaidi, the television reporter jailed for throwing his shoes in protest at former US President George W. Bush in December, was expected to be freed on Monday but his release has been delayed by at least a day.


AFP - Hopes that Muntazer al-Zaidi, the television reporter jailed for throwing his shoes at former US president George W. Bush, would be freed were dashed on Monday by legal red tape, his family told AFP.

Zaidi's brother, Durgham, and his sisters were in tears as he told reporters that the necessary paperwork had not been completed and they would have to wait at least until Tuesday to see him at liberty.

"He called me from the prison and said 'they won't release me today, they will free me tomorrow'," Durgham told AFP.

Although Zaidi's prison time is up, Iraqi inmates often see their liberty delayed for several extra days to allow the necessary prison release documents to be signed and approved.

"We will sit in tomorrow morning, and we will not leave if they delay his release again," Durgham said.

Zaidi, 30, 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.

The reporter's family and friends had gathered in central Baghdad where well-wishers carried balloons, flags, banners and portraits of the jailed reporter, seeking a glimpse of him.

His three sisters were disconsolate at Monday's delay and burst out crying.

"They don't want to release him," one of them said.

Zaidi shouted "it is the farewell kiss, you dog," at Bush on December 14 last year, seconds before hurling his size-10 shoes at the man who ordered Iraq be invaded and occupied six and a half years ago.

Although Bush, who 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 before handing power to 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 channel, 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 channel.

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

The reporter, 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 family.

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

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

"He is a brave man," said Sheikh Salah al-Obeidi, spokesman for radical anti-US cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose support comes from the millions of Iraqis living in Shiite slums around the country.

"Muntazer's release is a victory for all those who reject the occupation and stand against it."

But to many others, Zaidi's actions are nothing to be proud of.

"I don't consider him to have taken a heroic stance," said Ali Adnan, a 32-year-old defence ministry employee.

"There is a widespread view among Iraqis that Bush deserved what happened to him but in our tradition you cannot offend a guest. It cannot be justified. It reflected a negative view of Iraqi society," he added.

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