Three arrested in plot to assassinate Prophet cartoonist

New York, February 14, 2008—CPJ is concerned by reports that police in Denmark have uncovered a plot to kill the author of a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad—one of 12 drawings that sparked a global controversy two years ago.

Danish security services arrested a Danish citizen of Moroccan origin and two Tunisians on Tuesday. At least 17 Danish dailies, including the leading national dailies Politiken and Ekstra Bladet, reprinted Westergaard’s cartoon in solidarity after learning of the murder plot against him, according to Agence France-Presse.

The cartoons were first published by the Viby, Denmark-based daily Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, and were considered offensive by many Muslims.

International news reports said the suspects, who have not been identified, were rounded up in the city of Aarhus on Tuesday. The Danish suspect was released after questioning; the two Tunisians face extradition. The three are suspected of conspiring to kill 73-year-old cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, the author of what is considered the most offensive of the drawings—showing the founder of Islam wearing a bomb-shaped turban with a lit fuse.

“We are concerned by reports that the suspects have been conspiring to assassinate Kurt Westergaard,” CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said. “A cartoonist has the right to publish his drawings without the fear of violence being threatened against him.”

The plotters specifically targeted Westergaard, Tage Clausen, a spokesman at Jyllands-Posten told CPJ. Westergaard, who is currently under police protection, said in a statement: “Of course I fear for my life after the Danish Security and Intelligence Service informed me of the concrete plans of certain people to kill me. However, I have turned fear into anger and indignation.”

Jyllands-Posten enhanced its security measures in early 2006, when the crisis over the cartoons’ publication peaked. Counter-surveillance techniques and security guards were given greater presence at the paper, Clausen told CPJ. “We are shocked about the specific threat against Westergaard, but the atmosphere in the press room is calm and has not changed,” said Clausen. The paper had received several bomb threats in the past because of the drawings.

Around the world, violent protests erupted after the 12 cartoons were reprinted by at least 70 newspapers in more than 30 European countries and a few others in the Middle East after their initial publication on September 30, 2005. The cartoons sparked furor in the Muslim world, where depictions of the Prophet are forbidden, and triggered a larger debate about the conflict between press freedom and the respect to religious beliefs.

Danish embassies have faced protests and flag burnings throughout the Middle East since the cartoons were first published. Libya closed its Copenhagen Embassy, and Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador from Denmark in 2006. Iran and Iraq both formally complained to Denmark over the cartoons.