By QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD – The Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at President George W. Bush was expected to appear before a judge Wednesday in a first step of a complex legal process that could end in a criminal trial, a government official and the reporter's brother said.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi has been in custody since Sunday, when he gained folk hero status across the Arab world by throwing both shoes at Bush during a news conference. Bush ducked twice during the bizarre assault and was not injured.
Despite widespread sympathy for his act across the region, Iraqi authorities sent the case to the Central Criminal Court of Iraq, which handles security and terrorism cases.
An investigative judge will review the evidence and decide whether al-Zeidi should stand trial — a process that could take months. Iraq officials have recommended charging him with insulting a foreign leader, a charge which carries a maximum sentence of two years imprisonment or a small fine.
But investigative judges have sweeping powers under Iraqi law to amend and add charges — or even dismiss the case. If the judge finds enough evidence to warrant prosecution, a judicial panel will appoint three judges to hear the case and set a trial date.
Shiite lawmaker Bahaa al-Araji said he expected al-Zeidi, who's in his late 20s, to be released on bail in the next few days while the investigative judge considers the case.
Al-Baghdadia television, his employer, said al-Zeidi would be represented by Dhiaa Saadi, head of the Iraqi lawyers' association.
The head of Jordan's Bar Association, Saleh Armouti, said scores of lawyers have volunteered to help defend al-Zeidi. The association is dominated by hard-line Muslims and leftists critical of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was standing beside Bush when the shoe attack occurred, issued no statement about how it planned to pursue the case.
Al-Zeidi's brother, Maitham, said he spoke with the reporter by telephone Tuesday and was told that he expected to be in court Wednesday morning.
Maitham al-Zeidi also said his brother sounded fit, despite claims by another brother that he had suffered a severe beating after being grabbed by Iraqi security at the Sunday press conference.
"Muntadhar has a broken leg, cracked ribs, some injuries under his eye, and his leg is also hurting him," al-Zeidi's brother Dhargham told The Associated Press. "He was taken to the hospital today around noon."
Dhargham said his information came from a friend who works as a security guard in the Green Zone where the shoe-throwing incident took place.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf also denied reports that al-Zeidi had been badly injured.
"The rumors about al-Zeidi being injured or being hurt are baseless," Khalaf told the AP. "You can check that when you see him in the criminal court tomorrow morning."
In Washington, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said it was up to Iraqi leaders to decide whether punishment is appropriate for al-Zeidi.
"The president believes that Iraq is a sovereign country, a democratic country, and they will have a process that they follow on this," said Perino, who suffered an eye injury in the fracas that followed the assault. "The president harbors no hard feelings about the incident."
The U.S. set up the Central Criminal Court after the 2003 invasion as the flagship tribunal, granting it nationwide jurisdiction specializing in terrorism cases. However, the court has been widely criticized for failing to meet international standards.
In a report released Monday, Human Rights Watch said defendants have been held for up to two years without a hearing and that defense attorneys often have little or no access to their clients or their case files before hearings.
"Iraqis who come before this court cannot expect justice," said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch. He said security problems, lack of resources and heavy caseloads undermine "any notion that the central court is meeting basic fair trial standards."
Many Iraqis believe al-Zeidi was a hero for insulting an American president widely blamed for the chaos that has engulfed their country since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
In Mosul, Iraq's third-largest city, located north of Baghdad, an estimated 1,000 protesters carried banners and chanted slogans on Tuesday demanding al-Zeidi's release.
A few hundred more also protested in Nasiriyah, a Shiite city about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, and in Fallujah, a Sunni area west of the capital.
In Baghdad, Noureddin al-Hiyali, a lawmaker of the main Sunni bloc in parliament, defended al-Zeidi's actions and said he believed the reporter was likely motivated by the invasion of Iraq, the "dismantling of the Iraqi government, destroying the infrastructure" — all events he blamed on the Bush administration.
"International law approves peoples' right to resist occupation using all means, and Mr. Muntadhar al-Zeidi endeavored to resist occupation in his own manner," al-Hiyali said.
He urged the government to take that into consideration when deciding what to do with al-Zeidi.
The head of the Iraqi Union of Journalists described al-Zeidi's action as "strange and unprofessional" but urged al-Maliki to give him clemency.
"Even if he has committed a mistake, the government and the judiciary are broad-minded and we hope they consider his release because he has a family and he is still young," Mouyyad al-Lami told AP Television News. "We hope this case ends before going to court."