BAGHDAD - The Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at ex-President George W. Bush faces trial next week for allegedly assaulting a foreign leader after an appellate court refused to reduce the charge, a judicial official said Sunday.
Muntadhar al-Zeidi, 30, who won folk hero status throughout the Arab world for his protest, has been in custody since the Dec. 14 outburst at Bush's joint news conference with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
He had been due to stand trial in December but his defense team won a delay as it sought to reduce the charges to simply insulting Bush.
However, court spokesman Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar said an appellate court rejected the request and ordered the journalist to face trial on Feb. 19 on the original charge. He did not say when the appeals court issued its decision.
Bayrkdar refused to speculate what sentence al-Zeidi might receive if convicted, saying it would be up to the court. The defense has said the assault charge carries a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison.
The bizarre act of defiance transformed an obscure reporter from a minor TV station into a national hero to many Iraqis fed up with the nearly six-year U.S. presence here.
The case also drew worldwide attention and became a rallying cry throughout the Muslim world for critics who resent the U.S. invasion and occupation.
Thousands demonstrated for al-Zeidi's release and hailed his gesture, which came in the waning days of the Bush administration. The incident also embarrassed al-Maliki, who was standing next to Bush at the time.
Neither leader was injured, but Bush was forced to duck for cover as the journalist shouted in Arabic: "This is your farewell kiss, you dog! This is from the widows, the orphans and those who were killed in Iraq."
Al-Zeidi's lawyer, Dhia al-Saadi, said the defense would urge the court to consider his act as "a nationalistic expression" which was not intended to harm Bush physically but express opposition to "the occupation."
"This type of expression is well-known in America and Europe, where people throw eggs or rotten tomatoes at their leaders to express their rejection of their policies," al-Saadi told Associated Press Television News.
"When al-Zeidi threw his shoes at Bush, it was this kind of political expression. Therefore, there should be no criminal charges," he said.
Al-Zeidi was a correspondent for Al-Baghdadia, a satellite television station based in Cairo, Egypt. Station director Abdul-Hamid al-Saeh said he was disappointed that the charge was not reduced.
"We stress again that Muntadhar's case puts before the government a challenge that any democratic state must deal when it comes to an expression of opinion," he told The Associated Press by telephone.
Al-Zeidi's brother, Dhargham, said the family has not yet been informed of the trial date.
He also repeated complaints that relatives and lawyers have been denied access to al-Zeidi, saying authorities turned down the family's request to meet with him last Thursday.
"This court works according to orders from the Cabinet," the brother said. "He has been deprived of his simplest rights."
Al-Zeidi's family claims he was beaten and tortured in detention.
The investigating judge who reviewed the case said al-Zeidi had been struck about the face and eyes, apparently by Iraqi security agents who wrestled him to the floor after he hurled his shoes, forcing Bush to duck for cover.
One brother who visited al-Zeidi last month said he appeared in good shape and his injuries wounds had healed.
Dhargham al-Zeidi said his brother's guards threw him a birthday party last month complete with a cake.