The Iraqi journalist who gained cult status for throwing his shoes at George Bush said today he had wanted to restore the pride of his devastated country.
In his first public appearance since he was taken into custody on 14 December, Muntadhar al-Zeidi told his Baghdad trial he did not intend to harm Bush or to embarrass Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki.
“What made me do it was the humiliation Iraq has been subjected to due to the US occupation and the murder of innocent people,” al-Zeidi said.
“I wanted to restore the pride of the Iraqis in any way possible, apart from using weapons.”
The 30-year-old addressed the three-judge panel after being greeted by applause and cheers from supporters as he entered the courtroom.
His aunt handed him a scarf imprinted with a red, black and green Iraqi flag, which he kissed and draped around his neck.
The chief judge then threatened to order everybody out of the room if they did not calm down. The trial was later adjourned until 12 March.
Al-Zeidi has been in Iraqi custody since he was wrestled to the ground by guards and dragged away after the outburst at Bush’s joint news conference with al-Maliki in Baghdad.
When he threw the shoes, he shouted at Bush in Arabic: “This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq.”
In evidence today al-Zeidi described his growing frustration as Bush spoke about his victories and achievement at the press conference – held 37 days before Bush handed the war off to his successor, Barack Obama, who has pledged to end it.
“I was seeing a whole country in calamity while Bush was giving a cold and spiritless smile,” al-Zeidi said.
“He was saying goodbye after causing the death of many Iraqis and economic destruction.”
The television reporter was transformed into a celebrity across the Muslim world, where thousands hailed him as a hero and demanded his release for what they considered a justified act of patriotism.
Al-Zeidi’s lawyers say he has been charged with assaulting a foreign leader, which carries a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.
The defence has tried to get the charge reduced, saying the act does not merit such harsh punishment.
The defence has argued that Bush was not in Baghdad on an official visit because he had arrived in Iraq unannounced and without invitation.
That would mean the charge of assaulting a foreign leader would not be applicable, according to the defence.
“The visit was not formal because Mr Bush is an occupier and he was received by the commander of the US Army and it was an undeclared visit,” one of al-Zeidi’s lawyers Ghalib al-Rubaie said.
“President Jalal Talabani and the prime minister did not receive him when he arrived.”
Judge Abdul-Amir al-Rubaie adjourned the trial, saying the court needed time to ask the Iraqi Cabinet whether Bush’s visit was “formal or informal.”
Visits by foreign dignitaries are rarely announced beforehand due to security reasons.
The defendant, who was wearing a beige suit and a black shirt, spoke confidently and showed no signs of the injuries he allegedly suffered at the hands of security forces.
The case’s investigating judge has said the journalist was struck about the face and eyes, apparently by security agents after he hurled one shoe at a time, forcing Mr Bush to duck for cover.
Al-Zeidi said he was tortured, beaten and given electric shocks during his interrogation.
Supporters who rallied in front of the court before the trial began said al-Zeidi should be praised for standing up to Mr Bush, not punished for his actions.
“We are proud of what Muntadhar has done,” said his sister Doniya.
“Bush was not a guest in Iraq and he didn’t come by invitation of the Iraqi people. He came as an occupier.”