Paper Cleared in Muhammad Drawings Case

The Associated Press
Thursday, March 22, 2007; 11:52 AM

PARIS -- A French court cleared a satirical weekly newspaper Thursday in a case brought by Muslims who were angered by its publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

The newspaper Charlie-Hebdo and its director, Philippe Val, were accused of "publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion." Val had risked a six-month prison sentence and a fine of up to $29,250.

The court ruled that Charlie-Hebdo showed no intention of insulting the Muslim community with the caricatures, several of which appeared first in a Danish paper and sparked angry protests across the Muslim world and in Europe.

The case drew massive attention from politicians and the media in France, which has western Europe's largest Muslim population _ 5 million people _ and a deep commitment to secularism and free speech.

Val said the ruling was a victory for believers in freedom of expression, and for secular French Muslims.

"This debate was necessary," he said.

Lhaj Thami Breze of the fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organizations of France, one of the groups that brought the suit, said he would appeal the decision. Francis Szpiner, a lawyer for the conservative Mosque of Paris, the other group behind the suit, said it was not likely to appeal.

At the trial in February, a state attorney called for the dismissal of the case, saying the cartoons denounced terrorists' use of the Muslim faith but did not damage Islam. The defense read a letter of support from Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is running for president and said he preferred "an excess of caricatures to an absence of caricatures."

On Feb. 8, 2006, Charlie-Hebdo printed three caricatures _ two of them reprints of those carried by a Danish newspaper in 2005 that stoked anger across the Islamic world. One caricature was an original.

One of the caricatures first published in Danish paper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 showed Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban. Many European papers later reprinted the drawings in the name of media freedom.

Charlie-Hebdo ran the drawings in February 2006, with an original front page showing Muhammad with his head in his hands, crying and saying: "It's hard to be loved by idiots." The caption was "Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists."

The court acknowledged that the bomb-like turban could be taken as a general affront to Muslims. But it said that, given the context of the drawings' publication, the paper showed no "deliberate intention of directly and gratuitously offending the Muslim community."

In September, a Danish court rejected a lawsuit against Jyllands-Posten _ a verdict some Arab politicians and intellectuals warned would widen a cultural gap.

During the French trial, most politicians showed strong support for Charlie-Hebdo.

Defense lawyers cited another presidential candidate, Francois Bayrou, who said he believed the pillar of French society was freedom of expression, "which protects everyone, believers, atheists and agnostics."

Jyllands-Posten's editor-in-chief Carsten Juste hailed the French decision.

"Just like the case against the Jyllands-Posten, anything but a pure acquittal would have been a disaster for free speech, and through that, the whole basis for our democratic society," Juste said in a statement posted on the newspaper's Web site.

© 2007 The Associated Press