BAGHDAD – A court convicted an Iraqi journalist of assault Thursday for hurling his shoes at George W. Bush and sentenced him to three years in prison, prompting an outburst from his family and calls for his release from Iraqis who consider him an icon for a nation decimated by war.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi, 30, defiantly shouted, "Long Live Iraq!" when the sentence was imposed, according to defense lawyers. Some of his relatives collapsed and had to be helped out of the courthouse. Others were forcibly removed by guards after shouting "Down with Bush!"
"This judiciary is unjust," al-Zeidi's brother, Dargham, said tearfully.
Other family members shouted insults against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who like al-Zeidi is a Shiite.
Although al-Zeidi received the minimum sentence — it could have been 15 years behind bars — his lawyers denounced the verdict and said they would appeal, possibly hoping a public outcry would aid their cause.
Al-Zeidi's brazen act during a Dec. 14 press conference by Bush and al-Maliki in Baghdad's Green Zone turned the young reporter into a folk hero across the Arab world, where the former U.S. president is reviled for invading Iraq in 2003 and for other policies.
Many Iraqis interviewed after the verdict believed the sentence was too harsh and that al-Zeidi was a hero for standing up to the American president. Supporters defended his act as a political statement in Arab culture, where throwing shoes at someone is considered an especially serious insult.
But protests on al-Zeidi's behalf have drawn few participants since December, and there was no sign of spontaneous rallies Thursday after the noontime verdict.
It appeared unlikely, therefore, that al-Maliki would recommend a presidential pardon for the journalist, at least anytime soon.
Al-Maliki was deeply embarrassed by the assault against an American president who had stood by him when some Arab leaders were quietly urging the U.S. to oust him. His aides had said the prime minister was personally offended by such an insult to a foreign guest.
The speed of the trial — two relatively brief hearings — is likely to feed widespread suspicion among Iraqis that al-Maliki's government orchestrated the process, although defense lawyers said they had no evidence of interference.
Spokesmen for Bush and for the State Department both called the verdict "a matter for the Iraqi judicial system."
During Thursday's proceedings, chief defense attorney Dhia al-Saadi moved that the charges be dismissed, saying al-Zeidi's act was "an expression of freedom" and not a crime.
"It was an act of throwing a shoe, not a rocket," he told the court. "It was meant as an insult to the occupation."
Al-Zeidi, wearing a beige suit over a brown shirt and brown leather shoes, then entered a plea of not guilty.
Judge Abdul-Amir al-Rubaie cleared the courtroom of all spectators and announced the verdict, which was relayed to reporters and family members by defense lawyers and a court official.
News of al-Zeidi's sentence drew quick reactions across the capital.
"Al-Zeidi should have been honored and not sent to prison," said Salam Omar, who owns a cell phone shop in eastern Baghdad.
Nasir al-Saadi, a lawmaker loyal to Shiite opposition leader Muqtada al-Sadr, said the court "should have adopted a more humane approach and released him."
"It is an illegitimate and unfair sentence because he hit the commander of an occupying force," said Ahmed al-Obeidi, who lives in Baghdad's Sunni district of Azamiyah.
An ABC News/BBC/NHK poll released Thursday found that 62 percent of Iraqis surveyed considered al-Zeidi a hero and only 24 percent considered him a criminal.
Support was highest among Sunni Arabs — 84 percent — and lowest among the Kurds at 38 percent, according to ABC.
ABC said the findings were based on 2,228 face-to-face interviews with a random national sample of Iraqis conducted Feb. 17-25. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 percentage points. The full survey will be released Monday ahead of the sixth anniversary of the war, ABC said.
The head of the Iraqi Journalists' Union, Mouyyad al-Lami, urged the government to pardon al-Zeidi, saying the young journalist "deserves a second chance to start a new life."
But Serwan Gharaib, a journalist in the Kurdish city of Sulaimaniyah, said al-Zeidi had violated journalistic ethics by exploiting his access to Bush.
"I may understand the suffering of the Iraqi people due to the occupation, but I do not understand the bizarre method of protest conducted by al-Zeidi," he said.
Al-Zeidi, a correspondent for a small Iraqi-owned television station based in Cairo, Egypt, has been in Iraqi custody since the incident.
When al-Zeidi threw his shoes at Bush, he shouted in Arabic: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."
On Thursday, defense lawyers quoted al-Zeidi as telling them, "At that moment, I saw nothing but Bush, and I felt the blood of the innocents flowing under his feet while he was smiling that smile."
Bush quickly ducked to avoid being hit and was not injured. Guards wrestled al-Zeidi to the ground and dragged him away.
The trial began on Feb. 19 but was adjourned until Thursday after the defense argued that the assault charge was inapplicable because Bush was not in Baghdad on an official visit, having arrived unannounced and without an invitation.
On Thursday, the judge accepted a statement from al-Maliki's office that the visit was official.
Last month, a German student threw a shoe at Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao during a speech at Britain's Cambridge University. The student, Martin Jahnke, is free on bail until his trial in June on charges of disturbing public order.