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Iraqi who threw shoes at Bush is released from prison

Muntather Zaidi keeps his footwear on this time, but fires off some verbal salvos.

September 16, 2009|Ned Parker and Mohammed Arrawi | Arrawi is a Times staff writer.

BAGHDAD — The case began with a news conference and ended with one too. But this time no footwear flew.

Instead, Muntather Zaidi, an Iraqi television correspondent who gained notoriety when he hurled his loafers at then-President George W. Bush, used the occasion of his release from jail Tuesday to accuse Iraqi security and government personnel of torturing him in custody.

Zaidi, who was tackled by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's bodyguards after cursing Bush and flinging his shoes at the American president in December at a Baghdad news conference, was welcomed with a triumphant homecoming at his television station. He told reporters at the Baghdadiya satellite channel offices that he was beaten, whipped and shocked during his first days of incarceration.

"Here I am free and the country is still a prisoner," said a sedate Zaidi, with an Iraqi flag draped around his shoulders.

His manner was a far cry from the fateful moment when he yelled at Bush: "This is a gift from the Iraqis! This is the farewell kiss, you dog!" He then lofted a loafer, which Bush nimbly dodged, before Maliki helped shield the American leader from the second shoe.

Iraq's central criminal court sentenced Zaidi to three years in prison for assaulting a visiting head of state, but the judiciary later shortened his sentence to one year and then ordered him released this month.

Later Tuesday he left for Greece to seek medical treatment, according to his brother Uday Zaidi.

During his appearance earlier in the day, Muntather Zaidi, missing a front tooth since going to jail, reiterated the allegations aired by his family during his jail time that he was beaten immediately after his arrest. Security guards began pummeling him even as the news conference continued inside the prime minister's residence, Zaidi claimed.

"The Iraqi prime minister was shown in the media saying he did not sleep until he checked on me, and then only after I found a comfortable bed and a cover, [but] at these moments when he was speaking I was getting tortured in the most terrible ways possible, by electric shock, beatings by cables, being beaten by steel bars," Zaidi said.

"I demand an apology from Mr. Maliki for hiding the truth from the people," he said.

The bespectacled Zaidi promised to later reveal the names of the government officials and Iraqi army officers who beat him. Zaidi, 30, also heaped scorn on Iraqi politicians for the treatment of detainees.

"I would like to remind the lords and those in charge in politics that there are hundreds and thousands of victims, all because of secret informers, that have been residing in those dungeons for years with no trials or [judicial] review. They have been brought from houses and streets and been sent to those prisons. Here I am -- in front of you, in front of God and in front of them, maybe they [the politicians] might listen to me," he said in his final words from the podium.

Early in the news conference, Zaidi described his motivation, saying: "I am not a hero. I admit I have a position and opinion. I was humiliated seeing my country violated and my Baghdad burnt."

He apologized for any embarrassment he might have caused the Iraqi media, saying he had been swept away by his nationalist ardor, that he had long been tormented by what he saw as Iraq's suffering under the Americans.

"I was seeing with my own eyes the victims' pain and the cries of widows and orphans. The cries were following me when I finished my professional task in covering Iraq's daily tragedies from the demolished houses' ashes or from the victims' blood that left stains on my shirt," Zaidi told his fellow reporters. "I vowed to our victims to avenge them, and the opportunity came and I did not miss it for every single drop of innocent blood that was caused by the occupation."

Iraqi officials and local media reports have speculated that Zaidi was paid to throw his shoes or was working for a political party, but Zaidi said he acted alone.

His release came as another American leader visited Baghdad. Vice President Joe Biden was scheduled to have meetings with Maliki and other Iraqi officials, along with U.S. diplomats and military commanders, on a three-day visit to Iraq.

On his first night, at least three mortar rounds exploded in Baghdad's high-security Green Zone in what some Iraqis thought was a welcome from militants for Biden. The shells hit around an apartment complex, leaving two civilians dead, police said.

--

ned.parker@latimes.com

Staff writers Usama Redha and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.

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