A Yemeni editor convicted of "insulting Islam" for reprinting Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad has denounced the verdict against him, telling The Jerusalem Post that basic rights in his country such as freedom of expression and freedom of the press are at stake.
Muhammad al-Asaadi, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer, was found guilty by a Yemeni court on Wednesday and ordered to pay a fine of half a million riyals ($2,500).
He was arrested on February 11, just days after his newspaper had published the cartoons, which originally appeared last September in the Copenhagen daily Jyllands Posten.
The caricatures, which included one that portrayed the founder of Islam with a bomb in his turban, sparked riots and violent protests by Muslims in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.
Speaking by phone from his office in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, Asaadi told the Post that the verdict against him was unfair.
"We published the cartoons with an 'X' mark over them to protest their content," he noted. "But the judge and the prosecutor were concerned about the image and not the context in which they appeared."
"The verdict is harsh, intolerant and unjust, and it has purely political motives behind it," he said. He plans to file an appeal.
A devout Muslim, Asaadi pointed out that the reprint of the cartoons had been accompanied by two articles denouncing them. He did this, he said, to explain to his largely foreign readership why the depiction of Muhammad was deemed offensive to many Muslims.
"This is not just about my case," he said. "It is a sign of the deterioration of the freedom of press in this country. The government is trying to assert control over everything that is published here."
On November 26, another Yemeni journalist, Kamal al-Aalafi, editor-in-chief of the Arabic-language weekly Al-Rai Al-Aam, was sentenced to a year in prison for reprinting the cartoons.
Two other Yemeni journalists, Abdulkarim Sabra, managing editor of Al-Hurriya Ahliya, and Yehiya al-Abed, a reporter for the newspaper, are currently on trial facing similar charges.
"If the past two years were among the worst for freedom of the press in Yemen," Asaadi said, "2006 has surpassed them."
Asked if he is concerned for his safety in the wake of the verdict, Asaadi paused before answering. "Yes, I have started to worry about my situation and that of my family."
"The verdict opens up the door for radicals to take the laws into their own hands," he said, as they might view the punishment imposed on him as being too lenient.
"This is not just my fight" he declared, adding, "It is a battle for our society. We need to establish values such as a free press and freedom of expression."
"A real democracy is one that is really built on this freedom," he said.
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