The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at former US President George Bush was released today after nine months in prison, and in a defiant address he accused Iraqi security forces of torturing him with beatings, whippings and electric shocks.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi’s stunning act of protest last December made him a hero for many in the Arab and Muslim worlds, where many blamed Bush for the bloodshed in Iraq.
Protesters waving shoes became a popular symbol in anti-American protests in the months afterward.
But there was little public outpouring for support for al-Zeidi after his release, possibly reflecting a cooling of passions now that President Barack Obama is in office and American troops have pulled back from Iraq’s cities in preparation to withdraw fully by the end of 2011.
After his release, al-Zeida was unrepentant, telling reporters that while he is now free, his country is still “held captive” by US occupation.
“Simply put, what incited me toward confrontation is the oppression that fell upon my people and how the occupation wanted to humiliate my homeland by placing it under its boots,” he said, wearing a scarf in the colours of the Iraqi flag draped around his neck.
His protest came on Mr Bush’s final visit to Iraq as president, on December 14. At a press conference, al-Zeidi shot up from his chair and hurled his shoes toward Bush at the podium, shouting “this is your farewell kiss, you dog!” and “this is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”
Mr Bush ducked twice to avoid being hit and was unhurt.
Al-Zeidi was wrestled to the ground by journalists and security men.
The protest was a deep embarrassment to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who was standing beside Mr Bush.
A spokesman who works for Mr Bush in his Dallas office did not immediately respond to an email and phone message by The Associated Press seeking comment on al-Zeidi’s release.
Al-Zeidi said he was abused immediately after his arrest and the following day. He said he was beaten with iron bars, whipped with cords and was subjected to electric shocks in the backyard of the building in the Green Zone where the news conference was held.
“In the morning, I was left in the cold weather after they splashed me with water,” he told reporters at the offices of Al-Baghdadiya, the TV station where he works and where he was taken immediately after his release.
He promised to reveal the names of senior officials in the Iraqi government and army who he said were involved in mistreating him.
He said he now feared for his life and believed that US intelligence agents would chase after him and “try to kill and liquidate me either physically, socially or professionally.”
He added an apology to the media for throwing the shoe at a press conference, saying, “I would like to apologise to you for the professional embarrassment I caused organisations.”
Al-Zeidi was reunited with close family at the TV station, then left in a three-car convoy headed to an undisclosed destination, where he was expected to meet up with other relatives.
At the family’s home, al-Zeidi’s brother Uday said the reporter will travel to Greece on Thursday for medical check-ups and because he had concerns about his safety in Iraq.
Outside his home in central Baghdad, celebrations by family members erupted at the news of his release, with women crying out and breaking into traditional Iraqi dances.
But there was little marking of the release elsewhere in Baghdad or in the broader Arab world.
Al-Zeidi’s protest stirred millions across the Mideast, where the public has been captivated and angered by images of destruction and grieving since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Many blamed Mr Bush for unleashing Iraq’s turmoil with the invasion, and he was also widely seen as anti-Arab or anti-Muslim.
For days, the shoe-throwing was played endlessly on regional and international TV channels. It was widely celebrated and even inspired internet games and T-shirts and led some to try to offer their daughters to him in marriage.
There were also reports that a Saudi man wanted to pay US$10m for one of the shoes.
Al-Zeidi was convicted of assault in March. His three-year prison sentence was reduced to one because he had no criminal record before the shoe-throwing incident. He was released three months early for good behaviour.
His family said at the time that his bitter experiences since the invasion helped mold his resentment of the US military’s presence in Iraq.
The family says al-Zeidi might use his celebrity status to promote humanitarian causes such as the rights of orphans and women.
His employer, Al-Baghdadiya TV, expects he will return to work as a television reporter for the station, though some have questioned how he would be able to work again as a journalist in Iraq.