French Court Considers Mohammed Cartoon Lawsuit

By Eva Cahen | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

Paris, France ( - A year after an Islamic furor over the publication of cartoons satirizing Mohammed, a two-day trial that opened in Paris Wednesday is a key test of freedom of expression, according to press freedom advocates here.

The Paris Mosque and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France are suing Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly newspaper, accusing it of insulting Muslims and inciting religious hatred by publishing three cartoons.

Two of the cartoons were reprints from a series of 12 published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005.

Their appearance and subsequent reproduction in other media sparked violent demonstrations and provoked threats and boycotts against Denmark in many Muslim countries. Dozens died in violent protests, with the most serious incidents taking place in Nigeria, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"What's at stake is to reaffirm -- in France for now, but also in Europe in general, because the cartoons originated in Denmark -- that the public area is meant for debate, controversy, and even discord," said Elsa Vidal, head of the European bureau of the press freedom watchdog, Reporters Without Borders.

"It is in this public area that disagreements must be settled and criticism and satire must be tolerated, because they are the result, sometimes even a disagreeable result, of a freedom that has no price -- the freedom to inform, to be informed, and the freedom of expression," she told Cybercast News Service .

Apart from the two Jyllands-Posten cartoons, Charlie Hebdo also published a third of its own, on the front page of its February 8, 2006 issue.

Penned by a French cartoonist, Cabu, it depicted Mohammed holding his head, sighing, and saying, "It's hard to be loved by fools." The sketch appeared under the headline: "Mohamed Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists."

The two cartoons reprinted from the Danish newspaper showed a man meant to be the Muslim prophet wearing a turban shaped like a bomb, and one in which the Mohammed character, sitting on a cloud, tells suicide bombers paradise has run out of virgins (a reference to an interpretation of Islamic texts holding that Muslim "martyrs" have a heavenly reward of dozens of virgins awaiting them after death.)

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, has said the cartoons went beyond satire and insulted all Muslims by associating them with terrorists.

"We don't want censorship, we don't want the sacred to be protected by blasphemy laws or medieval jurisprudence," Boubakeur said in televised comments Tuesday.

The publisher of Charlie Hebdo, Philippe Val, said at the opening of the trial he published the cartoons because he wanted to show that in France, religion as an ideology could be criticized.

"These drawings clearly show the utilization of Islam by terrorists and nothing else," he said.

In a radio interview earlier Wednesday, Val said the trial was a political one.

The mosque is being represented in the case by Francis Szpiner, who is also President Jacques Chirac's lawyer.

When Charlie Hebdo originally published the cartoons, Chirac criticized them as provocative and said they could "dangerously stir passions."

France is entering a presidential election campaign. Among the witnesses called to testify at the trial on behalf of Charlie Hebdo are opposition Socialist party leader Francois Hollande and centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou. The paper also presented a letter of support from the front-running center right candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Val called the trial "medieval" but said it was also the occasion for a debate that could be useful for everybody.

The ruling in the case will set a precedent on how French law sees criticism of Islam. Some 5-6 million Muslims, immigrants and their descendents, live in France, making Islam the second largest religion in the country.

At the time when Charlie Hebdo published the cartoons last year, newspapers in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and other countries were banned or suspended for reprinting the drawings.

The editor of the French daily, France Soir, was dismissed two days after he also published the cartoons.

A Danish court ruled last October that the cartoons were not offensive to Muslims.

The ruling on the French case will be issued at a future date.

Vidal from Reporters Without Borders said it would be a surprise and a disappointment if Charlie Hebdo was ordered to pay the 30,000 euro ($39,000) fine the mosque is asking for in damages.

"The decision would be a giving in for democracy in its capacity to defend freedoms," she said.

See Earlier Stories:
Christians Targeted as Bloody Cartoon Violence Continues (Feb. 20, 2006)
Growing Islamic Anger Over Mohammed Cartoons (Jan. 03, 2006)

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