Editor jailed over Muhammad cartoons

New York, January 18, 2008—Minsk City Court in Belarus today imprisoned Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, an editor at the now-shuttered independent weekly Zgoda (Consensus) newspaper, for reprinting controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in 2006. Sdvizhkov was charged with “incitement of religious hatred” and sentenced to three years in a high-security prison.

Sdvizhkov was arrested on November 18 and his trial began on January 11 in Minsk, according to local news reports. He was tried behind closed doors.

“Clearly this is just a pretext to punish an independent journalist even after shutting down his publication,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the Belarusian authorities to immediately release Aleksandr Sdvizhkov.”

Aleksei Korol, Zgoda’s former editor-in-chief, told CPJ he was shocked by the sentence given to his former colleague. “The court ruling is disproportionate to his actions,” said Korol, whose recently established newspaper Novy ChasZgoda’s successor—
has also been subject to government prosecution. Korol said he disagreed with Sdvizhkov’s decision to reprint the cartoons alongside the paper’s article chronicling the uproar, adding that Zgoda’s staff apologized to the Belarusian Muslim community at the time.

Belarusian Islamic leader Ismail Voronovich said he wanted authorities to reprimand the journalist, not jail him. “I thought that this case was closed and the newspaper was back working,” The Associated Press quoted Voronovich as saying today.

Sdvizhkov reprinted the controversial cartoons in Zgoda in February 2006, prompting authorities to begin an investigation into possible “incitement of religious hatred”; a month later, the paper, which had also given coverage to an opposition candidate in the 2006 presidential election, was shuttered. Sdvizhkov fled Belarus to avoid imprisonment and returned last November to attend his father’s funeral. While in the country, the Belarusian Security Service arrested him.

A wave of controversy swept the world after Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 editorial cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, on September 30, 2005. The cartoons, which many Muslims considered blasphemous, were reprinted in various newspapers in countries beyond Denmark, further fueling the storm.