Debate arises over Iraqi shoe thrower's future

By: AP
By: AP

GENEVA (AP) -- A dispute broke out Monday over future plans for the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President George W. Bush. A Swiss lawyer said the Iraqi was planning to seek political asylum in Switzerland but one of his brothers vehemently denied that report.

Muntadhar al-Zeidi's life is in danger if he stays in Iraq, Geneva-based lawyer Mauro Poggia told The Associated Press.

But one of the journalist's three brothers denied he wanted to leave Iraq.

Al-Zeidi has been detained in an Iraqi jail awaiting trial since he was seized by guards after his Dec. 14 outburst at a joint news conference in Baghdad by Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Al-Zeidi's gesture of anger at Bush turned the employee of a minor TV station into a national hero to many Iraqis fed up with America's six-year presence in the country. But concern has been raised about his safety after allegations that he had been severely beaten and tortured in detention.

"He is in danger over there," Poggia said in a telephone interview Monday. "He's also in danger in other Muslim countries because people who support his action could try to make him a martyr."

The lawyer said he was given power of attorney earlier this month by a member of al-Zeidi's family who contacted him via the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been able to visit some prisons in Iraq. Poggia said it was too dangerous to name the family member.

But al-Zeidi's brother Dhargham, reached by The Associated Press in Baghdad, denied the claim and said he was unfamiliar with the Swiss lawyer.

"Such claims are baseless and Muntadhar al-Zeidi has no intention to leave the country and we will sue the Swiss lawyer," said the brother.

The defense team representing al-Zeidi said it also had no knowledge of such an appeal.

"We do not have any foreign lawyer in our defense team and this lawyer is not part of this case and we are concentrating on releasing al-Zeidi first," defense lawyer Dhia al-Saadi said.

Al-Zeidi, 30, had been due to face a trial last month on a charge of assaulting a foreign leader, but the court date was postponed after his defense filed a motion to reduce the charges to simply insulting Bush.

In order to claim asylum, al-Zeidi would have to make his request in Switzerland or at the Swiss embassy in Baghdad, but Poggia said he did not know when al-Zeidi could do that because he still has not gone to trial.

A spokesman for the Swiss Refugee Council, a non-governmental organization that helps asylum seekers in Switzerland, said al-Zeidi's chances of being granted refuge in the Alpine country are slim.

"The authorities could claim that he doesn't have any strong connections to Switzerland and therefore shouldn't be granted asylum," Yann Golay said.

Switzerland received 1,440 asylum applications from Iraqi citizens last year, of which only 164 were granted.

About 500 people marched to the White House Monday and threw about 40 pairs of shoes at the gate while tourists looked on and took photos on President Bush's last day in office..

Supporters say they are acting in solidarity with Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the Iraqi reporter who threw his shoes at Bush during a news conference in Baghdad in December.

The event was sponsored by the Washington Peace Center, the local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War and other groups.

Organizer Jamilla El-Shafei said Monday the event allows protesters to express their anger over Bush, who she said is "leaving with no accountability for eviscerating our constitution."


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