Judge: No probe into torture of journalist who threw shoes at Bush
Judge dismisses torture allegations; Brother claims journalist beaten, subjected to electric shocks, forced to sign false confessions.
BAGHDAD (AFP) – The Iraqi journalist thrust to instant fame when he threw his shoes at US President George W. Bush will go on trial this month on charges that carry up to 15 years in jail, a judge said on Monday.
Investigating judge Dhiya al-Kenani rejected new allegations by the journalist's family that he had been tortured in custody, charges that were levelled after a brother was allowed a first prison visit.
"The investigation phase is over and the case has been transferred to the Central Criminal Court," Kenani said. "The trial will start on Wednesday, December 31."
Muntazer al-Zaidi stands accused of "aggression against a foreign head of state during an official visit," an offence that carries a prison term of between five and 15 years under Iraqi law.
But the court could convict him of the lesser charge of "attempted aggression" which carries a prison term of one to five years.
Zaidi, 29, became a hero to many when he threw his shoes at Bush during the US president's surprise visit to Iraq on December 14, an action considered a grave insult in the Arab world.
Kenani confirmed that Zaidi's lawyer had lodged a complaint over his treatment and that a letter would be sent to the office of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to request that security guards be brought to justice.
One of Zaidi's brothers, Uday, told AFP he had been able to visit him in custody for the first time on Sunday and charged that the journalist had been tortured by his captors to force him to sign a statement.
"I met my brother for around an hour. He has been tortured while in detention for 36 hours continuously. He has been hit with iron rods and cables," the brother said.
"There is very severe bleeding in his eye, and he has bruises on his feet and nose, and he was also tortured with electric shocks.
"He was forced to sign a statement confessing to receiving money from different groups and saying that he did not throw his shoes for the honour of Iraq," Uday said.
"But Muntazer said I will not apologise for what I did -- not now, not ever."
Maliki's office confirmed that the premier had received a letter signed by Zaidi alleging third party involvement in his protest.
"Muntazer al-Zaidi has expressed regret in a letter I received from him in which he revealed that an individual persuaded him to commit this action and that this person is well-known for beheading people," it quoted Maliki as saying.
The allusion was clearly to insurgent groups opposed to his US-backed government that have executed captives in the past, but it was unclear precisely which individual Maliki was referring to.
The judge dismissed the family's torture allegations.
"Muntazer's brother is lying, because there are only bruises on Muntazer's face that he received during the arrest and they are small ones," Kenani told AFP.
"Even if it were true that he had been tortured with electric shocks, it would leave burns on his body, and you will see Muntazer during the trial, so you can judge for yourself.
But Uday insisted that any public appearance would prove the truth of his allegations. "If I am lying, let the judge show Muntazer on television for everyone to see," he said.
His lawyer had asked that Zaidi's case be transferred from the central criminal court, which handles terrorism cases, to an ordinary tribunal but the judge refused.
Meanwhile another brother, Durgham, slammed people reportedly trying to exploit the incident for commercial gain.
"It's all nonsense. These people want to exploit what my brother did," he said after being told a Turkish firm claimed it had manufactured the offending footwear.
A White House spokesman reiterated the US position that it is up to Iraq to handle Zaidi.
"He's in the hands of the Iraqi system. I don't have anything more on the shoe-thrower," spokesman Tony Fratto told reporters when asked if the White House was concerned about reports that the Iraqi journalist showed signs of having been tortured.
"I think that's been explored extensively and I have nothing new for you."