Six years later, Jordan readies to try Danish cartoonist

Backers see justice finally being served over cartoons they say defamed Mohammad; critics see show trial aimed at winning favor with Islamists.

Kurt Westergaard_311 reuters (photo credit: POOL New / Reuters)
Kurt Westergaard_311 reuters
(photo credit: POOL New / Reuters)
AMMAN, Jordan – Almost six years after a series of cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Mohammad were published by a Danish newspaper, a Jordanian court is taking upon itself to try in absentia cartoonist Kurt Westergaard and 19 other journalists and editors.
In a trial scheduled to get underway, they are charged with publishing offensive material against the Prophet. Attorney Usama Beitar says the trial in a Jordanian court represents "a civilized answer" to what he called a smear campaign by Western journalists and politicians against Islam.
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"They keep telling us in Europe that the law allows these people to say whatever they wish. We wanted to challenge them through the law. We are not going to behave like al-Qaida by bombing places or killing people," Beitar told The Media Line.
But critics say the legal proceedings are a propaganda exercise and a way for the government to polish its image among certain groups as Jordan’s King Abdullah grapples with demands for democratic and other reforms. 
The case was initiated in 2005 by a group of Jordanian intellectuals and journalists, not long after the cartoons were published. But it lay dormant for years, collecting dust in drawers of the court ever since. Last month, in the midst of a regional turmoil that plagued the region, the sensitive file was resurrected by an Amman prosecutor-general and the trial is back under the spotlight.
The 12 cartoons depicting Muhammad commissioned by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005 sparked protests across the Muslim world resulting in a total of more than 100 reported deaths as well as arson attacks on Danish embassies in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Ironically, the Danish newspaper had hoped the cartoon would contribute to the debate over freedom to criticize Islam.
Although the newspaper later apologized for Westergaard’s cartoon, which depicted Muhammad with a bomb in his turban, attempts to attack him continue. In 2009, Yale University press refused to reprint the cartoons in a book about the controversy, citing concerns that it would fan violence
Observers concede there is an ambiguity over the goal of the Jordan authorities to release the file and the significance of the timing for bringing the case back to public attention.
Analyst Helmi Al-Asmar says the trial could hardly be linked to the political crisis in Jordan, but he admits that it will undoubtedly generate interest from all sectors of society. "The government managed to contain public protests during the past weeks. They don’t need this case to divert attention," he says.
Zakaria Sheikh, head of the Muslim group “The Messenger of Allah Unites Us" and publisher of Islamist-oriented newspaper Al-Haqiqa Al-Dawlyah, says the trial is meant to bring justice to Muslims across the world, not only in Jordan.
According to the court's charges sheet, Westergaard is accused of defaming prophets, publishing cartoons insulting and slandering Muslims, and inciting sectarianism and racism. If convicted, the cartoonist could be sentenced to more than 10 years behind bars.
Although Sheikh says he is confident that the cartoonist will ultimately be found guilty of vilifying the Prophet, legal experts play down the significance of the trial, describing it as a propaganda tool.
"I do not understand why the case is being brought back to life at this stage. It is clearly for political reasons," says lawyer Beitar, a former member of “The Messenger of Allah Unites Us" campaign.
Agence France-Presse quoted Westergaard as saying that he hadn’t been informed of a trial against him in Jordan and said he would in any case not attend.
"I have not heard about this trial and have not been informed… In any case, I have no intention of going even if I am asked to," the 75-year-old cartoonist told AFP when asked about upcoming court proceedings in Amman.
The drawing, he insisted, is "a condemnation of terrorists who commit acts of terror in the name of Islam", according to AFP.
A former judge has poured cold water on the likelihood of finding Westergaard guilty due to lack of strong legal arguments and difference in cultures between the Middle East and Europe.
“The court will likely drop the case on grounds that it is not a specialty of the tribunal," says the judge, who didn’t want to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue. He says culture among Muslims prohibits people from taking aim at holy figures such as prophets, but in Europe, poking fun of Jesus and other Christian figures is an ordinary practice by journalists and artists.
Legal experts say the trial will likely generate a lengthy legal debate inside Jordan and in Europe in the event that Westergaard is found guilty. They say the mere definition of a crime is widely debatable.
In any case, experts say the Interpol would likely be reluctant to put Westergaard’s name on the wanted list, even if Jordan seeks his arrest through its treaty with the Interpol.
"Killing is a crime known to everybody-- there is no confusion about it so the Interpol can deport anyone linked to it. In Europe, they cannot talk about the Holocaust while we can without legal ramifications. But what about freedom of expression," says Zaki Salem, an expert in international law.
Salem rules out any possibility of having Westergaard deported to the kingdom, as such a decision could open a Pandora’s box for journalists and activists across the globe. "Defining what a crime is could be very elusive. This case is dead," he told the Media Line.
Meanwhile, the campaign has been marred by withdrawals of several members, although their reasons for quitting haven’t been revealed to the public. But some members say a dubious attitude by some main figures in the campaign drove other members to quiet.
"This case is very legitimate and we are all in support of trying the cartoonist, but there has been some questionable behavior by the campaign and its real goals," says Beitar, claiming that he suspects some people have joined the anti-cartoon campaign to curry favor with Islamic groups.
"It is everybody’s right to protest against the abuse of the Prophet. But it is clear that there is some confusion over the manner in which to handle the issue," adds Beitar, refusing to explain why he quit the campaign.