Editor convicted and fined over Prophet cartoons

New York, December 6, 2006—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the conviction and fine handed down to a Yemeni editor today for reprinting Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. A court in the capital Sana’a convicted Mohammed al-Asaadi, editor-in-chief of the English-language weekly Yemen Observer, of insulting Islam and fined him 500,000 rials (U.S. $2,500).

“We’re relieved that today’s court decision spared our colleague from prison, but we reject the notion that he somehow committed a crime, and we remain concerned about the repercussions of this prosecution on his safety,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. Al-Asaadi told CPJ he feared that his conviction of insulting the Prophet Muhammad left him vulnerable to attacks from militant Islamists.

Al-Asaadi was held at the courthouse for three hours until his lawyers posted a bond in the amount of the fine pending an appeal. Al-Asaadi said he refused to pay the fine as such, since this would have been an admission of guilt.

“The charges brought against me were invalid,” Al-Asaadi said. “So any ruling other than exoneration is invalid. I will appeal the court ruling,” he said.

His newspaper reprinted three of the drawings, in black and white and reduced size, with large X’s overlaid on each, as part of multiple-page coverage of the cartoon controversy. The editors wanted to denounce the cartoons, and explain to the mainly foreign readership of the Yemen Observer why they caused outrage among many Muslims.

Al-Asaadi said the past 11 days had been the most stressful of his whole ordeal following the harsh sentencing of a fellow editor on similar charges. On November 25, a Sana’a court sentenced Kamal al-Aalafi, editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language weekly Al-Rai Al-Aam, to one year in prison for republishing the cartoons. It also banned him from practicing journalism for six months after he leaves prison, and it suspended his newspaper for six months. He is free pending appeal.

Two other Yemeni journalists, Abdulkarim Sabra, managing editor and publisher of Al-Hurriya Ahliya, and Yehiya al-Abed, a journalist for paper, remain on trial for reprinting the cartoons in February. A decision in their case is expected mid-December, according to local news reports.

The cartoon controversy began in September 2005 when the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten published 12 caricatures of Muhammad, one of them depicting the Prophet wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a lit fuse. The publication caused anger in the Muslim world, where many consider depictions of Muhammad to be blasphemous. The cartoons gained increased attention after they were reprinted in the January 10 edition of Magazinet, a small Christian evangelical weekly based in Norway.