On Trial in Paris For Cartoons of Muhammad
PARIS, Feb. 7 — Hearings began Wednesday in a suit brought by two influential French Muslim organizations against a satirical weekly newspaper for printing cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad that had touched off international rioting.That last observation might suggest that this fellow will get off.
The Paris Mosque and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France contend that the newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and its director, Philippe Val, are guilty of slander, an offense that carries a possible six-month sentence and a fine of up to 22,500 euros, or about $29,000.
“If we can no longer laugh at the terrorists, what weapon is left for the citizen?” Mr. Val said at the hearing, according to The Associated Press.
“These drawings are about ideas, not men, about ideas defended by men who commit violent acts.”
The case is causing debate in a country where separation of church and state is considered a fundamental tenet of the national identity.
In its Feb. 8, 2006, issue, Charlie Hebdo republished 12 drawings that had originally appeared in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, some of them representing the Prophet Muhammad.
The cartoons were first published in September 2005.
Two of those drawings are cited in the suit: one depicting the prophet greeting suicide bombers in heaven with the caption, “Stop, stop, we have run out of virgins,” and another depicting Muhammad wearing a turban containing a bomb. A third image included in the suit was an original drawing by the French cartoonist Cabu, depicting a crying Muhammad with his head in his hands, saying, “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.”
Outcry in the Muslim world over the Danish cartoons led to violent protests in a number of countries — which resulted in the deaths of at least 50 people — and boycotts of Danish products. A number of other European publications also reprinted the cartoons.
A lawyer for the newspaper on Wednesday read in court a letter of support from Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister and the leading conservative presidential candidate. Mr. Sarkozy, whose office said that he had written the letter as a presidential candidate and not as a cabinet minister, said he “preferred an excess of caricature to a lack of caricature.”
In response, representatives of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, a national group that Mr. Sarkozy’s office helped to create, called an emergency meeting.
Another presidential candidate, François Bayrou, and the Socialist Party leader, François Hollande, have been called by the defense to testify.
The issue of whether revisions to the 1901 law separating church and state might be needed has become a topic of discussion in the presidential campaign.
In recent decisions, French courts have largely ruled against religious groups that contended that their faiths had been insulted.
But that is not an adequate response for people who care about free speech.
In this, as in the case in which Christians express opposition to homosexuality, the fact that one might be put on trial for expressing an opinion has a chilling effect.