Victory for editor over 'offensive' cartoons

THE editor of a French satirical magazine was cleared yesterday of inciting hatred against Muslims by printing controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

In a verdict that was widely hailed as an important victory for freedom of expression, a case brought by two Muslim organisations against Philippe Val was thrown out.

A Paris court said the cartoons, published by the weekly Charlie Hebdo, fell under the category of freedom of expression and did not constitute an attack on Islam in general - only on fundamentalists.

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Mr Val, who could have faced a jail term of up to six months, said he was pleased by the ruling.

"This is good news for all who believe in freedom of expression, for secular Muslims and republicans," he said after the courtroom broke into applause as the verdict was delivered.

When 12 of the cartoons originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, they triggered angry protests by Muslims worldwide that left 50 people dead.

Charlie Hebdo used those cartoons to illustrate a special edition on religious fundamentalism in February last year. It also published its own cartoons lampooning Muhammad and other religious figures.

The Great Mosque of Paris and the Union of Islamic Organisations of France launched their legal action with the support of the World Islamic League.

They argued that the caricatures incited hatred against Muslims and took Charlie Hebdo to court for "publicly offending a group of persons on the basis of their religion".

They said the images drew an offensive link between Islam and terrorism and had asked for about 20,000 in damages.

The case focused on three caricatures the Muslim groups argued were particularly insulting. The court ruled that two of the cartoons were absolutely not offensive to Muslims and that the "acceptable limits of freedom of expression had not been crossed".

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One of these, reprinted from the Danish paper, showed the Prophet standing on a cloud, turning away suicide bombers from paradise with the caption: "Stop, stop, we ran out of virgins."

The second, by the French cartoonist Cabu, showed Muhammad sobbing, holding his head in his hands and saying "It is hard to be loved by fools", under the caption: "Muhammad overwhelmed by fundamentalists."

However, the third cartoon - portraying the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban - drew a more nuanced ruling from the court. It said the caricature could potentially be insulting to Muslims but that the context of its publication in Charlie Hebdo made clear there was no intention to offend.

"The drawing, taken on its own, could be interpreted as shocking for followers of this religion [Islam]," the court said. However, it had to be seen in the wider context of the magazine examining the issue of religious fundamentalism.

Therefore, even if the cartoon "is shocking or hurtful to Muslims, there was no deliberate intention to offend them", the ruling stated.

Lhaj Thami Breze, the president of the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, said he intended to appeal.

"We don't understand," the group's lawyer said. "The judgment says that one of the drawings is shocking but that it falls within the framework of freedom of expression."

But lawyers for the Paris Mosque said they accepted the ruling as "balanced" and would not seek to challenge it.

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In Copenhagen, Carsten Juste, the editor in chief of Jyllands-Posten, welcomed the court ruling. "Anything other than a total acquittal would have been a catastrophe for free debate and the entire foundation of our democratic society," he said.

The editors of Jyllands-Posten were acquitted in October of any wrongdoing in a separate case in a Danish court and few of the dozens of newspapers worldwide that reprinted the cartoons have faced legal action.

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