BAGHDAD (Reuters) - An Iraqi reporter who shot to worldwide fame when he hurled his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush was released from prison Tuesday and accused the Iraqi guards who seized him of beating and electrocuting him.
Muntazer al-Zaidi, whose outburst during a news conference last December summed up the feelings of many Iraqis toward the former U.S. leader, was met outside the jail by parliamentarians who support him, his brother Uday al-Zaidi said.
Zaidi was sentenced to three years in jail for assaulting a head of state, but his sentence was later reduced to one year.
“Today I am free again but my home is still a prison,” he told reporters shortly after his release, a swipe at the continued U.S. military presence in Iraq six and a half years after the invasion to oust Saddam Hussein.
Zaidi said he was tortured after he was arrested in a room not far from where the news conference was held. He said guards beat him with cables, metal tubes and gave him electric shocks. His story was not possible to verify independently.
His employer, Al-Baghdadiya television, showed footage of Zaidi arriving at its station surrounded by guards. He was wrapped in an Iraqi flag and wore black sunglasses. Staff at his TV station slaughtered at least three sheep in his honor.
“The occupation forces invaded us under the pretext of liberation. They divided brothers, neighbors, they made our houses endless funeral tents and our streets cemeteries,” he said, referring to the sectarian slaughter unleashed by the invasion that has only subsided in the last two years.
His speech was slurred because of a missing tooth, but he otherwise seemed in good health. He left for Syria in the evening for a medical check-up, his brother Uday said.
Millions of people across the world saw footage of Zaidi throwing his footwear at Bush and calling him a “dog,” both grave insults in the Middle East.
“This is a goodbye kiss from the Iraqi people, dog,” he shouted. “This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”
An Iraqi court ordered Zaidi’s release Monday because under Iraqi law all prisoners sentenced to one year without previous convictions and who show good behavior get out after serving three quarters of the sentence.
Many Iraqis who backed the war to remove Saddam turned against the United States after his fall, angered by such events as its failure to stop looting, formal occupation led by a U.S. viceroy, and the sexual humiliation of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
“I felt humiliated to see my country burn and my people killed,” Zaidi said, explaining his outburst.
Zaidi’s protest caused huge embarrassment to Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who tried to intercept one of the shoes. Zaidi said he now feared for his life.
“These sinister agencies, the American intelligence and the agencies affiliated to it, will not spare any effort to pursue me as a rebel,” he said. “I would like to warn those close to me that the agencies may trap and kill me.”
After images of the shoe-throwing were broadcast, many people worldwide applauded the journalist.
Venezuela’s anti-American President Hugo Chavez called him courageous. A Libyan group headed by Muammar Gaddafi’s daughter gave him an award. Fathers from Arab countries offered Muntazer their daughters as brides.
His brother Uday said: “I wish Bush could see our happiness. When President Bush looks back and turns the pages of his life, he will see the shoes of Muntazer al-Zaidi on every page.”
At Zaidi’s house, his family and supporters eagerly awaiting him cheered and ululated.
“I feel proud because Zaidi lives in my neighborhood. I like telling people that,” said Arkan al-Fartousi, 25.
Abdul Hamid al-Saih, a spokesman for Baghdadiya, said Zaidi planned to continue working with the station.
Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy, Khalid al-Ansary and Reuters Television; Writing by Tim Cocks