BAGHDAD - The trial of a journalist who has been hailed as a hero in the Arab world after throwing his shoes at U.S. President George W. Bush was postponed on Tuesday pending a review of the case by a higher court, a spokesperson for Iraq's Higher Judicial Council said.
The trial of Muntadhar al-Zeidi was to begin Wednesday on charges of assaulting a foreign leader, which his defence team said carried a maximum sentence of 15 years. But court spokesperson Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said that the trial was been postponed pending an appellate court ruling on what charges the journalist should face.
Bayrkdar said the defence team was seeking a lesser charge. Two of his lawyers said they want a reduced charge of insulting a foreign leader - which carries a maximum sentence of three years.
"There is a difference between assault and insult, al-Zeidi wanted to express his objection to the occupation. So the case is within context of an insult and not an intention to kill," his lawyer Diaa al-Saadi told Associated Press Television News.
If the appellate court decides to reduce the charges, then al-Saadi said al-Zeidi could be released on bail. It was unclear when the appellate court would issue its ruling.
Al-Zeidi threw his shoes at Bush during a Dec. 14 joint news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The gesture of contempt for the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq made al-Zeidi a folk hero in Iraq and thousands of people have demonstrated for his release.
"According to the appeals raised by Muntadhar al-Zeidi's lawyers to the Federal Appeals Court, the Central Criminal Court has decided to postpone the trial sessions until the Federal Appeals Court issues a decision about these appeals, then another date for the trial will be set," Bayrkdar said.
Before the postponement was announced, one of al-Zeidi's lawyers told Associated Press Television News that he expected a lengthy trial and a sentence of no less than three years if he is convicted.
Al-Zeidi's brother, Dhargham al-Zeidi, said that the family would turn to an international court if they found the Iraqi jurisdiction system "biased and unfair."
"If the Iraqi jurisdiction system will be fair and transparent then its fine, but if it will be politicized," he said, then "we will rely on an international court."
The case transformed al-Zeidi from a little-know television journalist into an international celebrity for defying the U.S. leader, but it also embarrassed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who was standing next to Bush when the shoes were thrown.
Last week the Iraqi leader sought to undermine the journalist's popularity by saying the he had confessed that the mastermind of the attack was a militant known for slitting his victims' throats.
Al-Maliki said that in a letter of apology to him al-Zeidi wrote that a known militant had induced him to throw the shoes. The alleged instigator has never been identified and neither al-Maliki nor any of his officials have provided further explanation. The letter was never made public.
The journalist's family denied the claim and alleged that al-Zeidi was tortured into writing the letter.
His brother Uday al-Zeidi said he met the journalist in prison about a week after the incident and that there had been no regret for throwing the shoes.
He claimed his brother had a missing tooth and cigarette burns on his ears. He also said his brother told him that jailers also doused him with cold water while he was naked.
The investigating judge, Dhia al-Kinani, has said that the journalist was beaten around the face and eyes when he was wrestled to the ground after throwing the shoes.
There has been no independent corroboration that al-Zeidi was abused in custody, and Iraqi officials have denied al-Zeidi has been abused.
The show-throwing incident also led to a political crisis that resulted in the resignation of parliament's abrasive Sunni speaker and delayed by a week approval of key a vote on whether non-U.S. foreign troops would be allowed to stay in Iraq beyond New Year's Eve.
The parliament speaker, who angered other parliament members during a discussion of the shoe thrower, had tried to delay a vote on the troop agreement as a way to hold onto his job, but the effort failed.