Muntader al-Zeidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, has become a hero in much of the Arab world and a video sensation in the YouTube universe. His assault or protest (pick your own term) has been seen around the world by millions, but al-Zeidi himself is nowhere to be seen.
(AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
He has disappeared into an Iraqi legal system that is deeply flawed and, at times, intentionally confusing. If transparency is the standard for a good court system, then Iraq's is the opposite. Opaque doesn't begin to describe it.
Today's proceedings are a good example of just how hard it is to navigate the system. Our crew just returned from Baghdad's Central Court, where al-Zeidi did not appear as expected. His family and a team of defense lawyers hired by his employer, Baghdadiya TV, had been told that his preliminary hearing would take place today, and they arrived at court with the reasonable expectation that they could see the accused and provide legal representation for him.
Instead, they were given a second-hand account of a hearing that had already taken place. The Central Court judge told al-Zeidi's lawyers that one of his colleagues had finished the investigative proceeding against the accused yesterday, in a session that took place in the heavily-fortified Green Zone.
Today's judge announced that al-Zeidi had admitted assaulting President Bush and resisting arrest. According to this account, al-Zeidi said he resisted because he was "nervous and confused" and he added that he would not press charges against security agents who beat him during the incident.
Here's the video again, in case, through some miracle, you've not yet seen it:
The judge said a prosecutor was present at yesterday's hearing and that al-Zeidi had a court-appointed defense attorney. At that hearing al Zeidi is said to have stated that he did not want to be defended by the lawyers who represented Saddam Hussein (they had volunteered).
But that leaves open the possibility that al-Zeidi (at left) will be represented by the lawyers hired by his TV station. The Central Court judge said the decision on whether this case proceeds to trial could come as soon as eight days from now. He stressed that that it is not up to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to press charges at this point because the matter is already in the court system. (That preempts any call for al Maliki to drop the charges, of course.)
The charge is assaulting a foreign president, which carries a maximum 15-year sentence, but the judge today indicated there was a wide range of possible sentences.
Al-Zeidi's family was informed at today's hearing that he is being held in a jail in the Green Zone, but when our crew went to that facility they were told he had never been there. So far, no member of his family has seen him and we have no idea of his physical condition.
There is no explanation so far as to why the hearing took place a day earlier than planned at a secret location without the presence of al-Zeidi's legal team or family.
His brother, Dhargam al-Zeidi told the Associated Press that he believes the non-appearance Wednesday suggests his brother was beaten, "and they fear that his appearance could trigger anger at the court."
Whatever al-Zeidi intended with his shoe throwing at that presidential news conference, this incident has opened a window on the Iraqi legal system. For foreigners on the outside looking in, the case is already giving some insight as to what kind of country the U.S. will leave behind.