Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi was sentenced to three years in prison today for throwing his shoes at George W Bush on the 15th of December. This to my mind is a disgracefully harsh sentence. If Iraq wants to be seen as a mature democracy, this overreaction to a very mildly violent political protest is not going to help its cause. Protests in this vein happen regularly in democratic societies: in the 1970s Richard Nixon was egged in Ireland by an anti-war protestor; a few years back here in the UK,  John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister at the time, had an egg thrown at him by a farmer. His response? He punched the protestor and got into a scuffle. Prescott also got soaked by a jug of iced water thrown over him by a member of the band Chumbawumba, in support of striking Liverpool dockers, at the 1998 Brit Awards; only last week an environmental protestor threw green custard over Peter Mandelson, the Business Secretary, to express opposition to his support for a third runway at Heathrow Airport.

Now I understand that it’s open to debate whether this type of action is effective or appropriate, however I cannot see of any argument that could justify a prison sentence of three years, in what is likely to be a very harsh environment, being doled out to a journalist, who had been a law-abiding citizen up to this point. He has even been a victim of kidnapping himself and family members were arrested under Saddam Hussein’s regime. His weapon of choice, his shoes, show that his primary intent was to deliver an Iraqi insult, not to seriously injure Bush. Even if he had connected, he would have done no more damage to Bush than the President had done to himself with a pretzel. Bush himself was able to joke about the “attack” in the immediate aftermath and we have all had a good laugh since.

But the joke is now over – al-Zaidi’s lawyer’s plan to appeal and I hope they succeed in getting his sentence reduced significantly. In truth the time he has already served has been too harsh. In genuinely free societies, which Bush has claimed Iraq is now, people must feel free to express political opinion in a sometimes fiery manner, without fearing disproportionate reprisals from the authorities. Otherwise the country starts to look more like a police state.

PS – do you know of an incident of something non-lethal being thrown at a politician? Leave a comment and we can build a dossier.

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