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An editor in Belarus was sentenced to three years in jail last week for reprinting the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, report the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) and the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ).

On 18 January, Aleksandr Sdvizhkov, former deputy editor at the now-closed independent weekly "Zgoda" ("Consensus"), was charged with "incitement of religious hatred" for republishing the Prophet Mohammed cartoons in 2006 and sentenced to three years in a high-security prison. He was tried behind closed doors.

"In 21st century Europe, it is shocking to see an editor arrested, tried behind closed doors and punished beyond any acceptable limits only for reprinting cartoons produced elsewhere and that have been published everywhere," says Miklos Haraszti, OSCE's media representative.

"Zgoda" was closed down by a court in March 2006 following the reprint of the caricatures, which originally appeared in the Danish newspaper "Jyllands-Posten".

Criminal proceedings alleging "incitement of religious hatred" were reopened following Sdvizhkov's arrest in November 2007 when he returned to Belarus after spending the past two years living in Russia and Ukraine.

Aleksei Korol, the former editor-in-chief of "Zgoda", said that although he disagreed with Sdvizhkov's decision to reprint the cartoons, he was shocked by the harsh court ruling.

Korol's recently established newspaper "Novy Chas" - "Zgoda's" successor - was charged in December with defaming a government official. According to OSCE, the paper is unable to pay the hefty fine of 16,000 Euros (US$23,400) and will have to close.

Ismail Voronovich, a leader in Belarus's Muslim community, said the punishment was too harsh. "I asked the court for lenience. I would have freed this journalist, if I had powers," Voronovich told European Radio for Belarus (ERB).

Heated protests swept the world in early 2006 in reaction to the Danish newspaper's decision to publish 12 caricatures of Mohammed in what it said was a challenge to self-censorship among artists dealing with Islamic issues. The cartoons, considered blasphemous by many Muslims, were reprinted in various newspapers worldwide, further fuelling the controversy.

Visit these links:
- CPJ:
- BAJ:
- ERB:
(22 January 2008)

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