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FREE EXPRESSION ADVOCATES RALLY AROUND CARTOONIST

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières, RSF) have strongly condemned a US$150,000 bounty on a Swedish artist who drew the Prophet Mohammed with the body of a dog.

In an audio statement posted on an Islamist website on 15 September, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, head of al-Qaeda in Iraq, offered up to $100,000 for the murder of artist Lars Vilks for drawing the head of the Prophet on the body of a dog. He offered a 50 percent bonus if Vilks was "slaughtered like a lamb" by having his throat cut.

Al-Baghdadi also placed $50,000 on the life of Ulf Johansson, editor-in-chief of "Nerikes Allehanda", the local newspaper in the western town of Örebro that printed the cartoon last month to draw attention to threats to free expression in Sweden.

IFEX members defended the newspaper's right to free expression. "While appreciating that the publication of the drawing may have caused offence to many Muslims, WAN emphasises that 'Nerikes Allehanda' enjoys full freedom of expression and that a choice to publish the drawing falls within that right and should be duly respected," says WAN.

The cartoon was originally published in "Nerikes Allehanda" on 18 August, alongside an editorial defending freedom of speech and freedom of religion after three Swedish art galleries had refused to display the picture over security concerns. It immediately provoked protests by Muslims in Örebro.

Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt has sought to calm tensions over the cartoon at a meeting with ambassadors from 22 Islamic countries, and Muslim leaders in Sweden condemned the threats.

Islam considers idolatry blasphemous and the depiction of Mohammed in any pictorial form is strictly forbidden.

The threats against Vilks and the newspaper mirror the controversy over 12 cartoons lampooning Islam that were published in a Danish newspaper in 2005. The cartoons sparked attacks on Danish embassies, a boycott of Danish goods, and violent demonstrations in which at least 50 people died.

Vilks, who lives in an isolated area of Sweden, has been given police protection but has been ordered to leave his home, reports Reuters. He told reporters he drew the controversial picture to challenge what he says is his country's excessive political correctness when it comes to Muslim religious beliefs.

Visit these links:
- WAN: http://www.wan-press.org/article15067.html
- RSF: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=23686
- Vilks's cartoons on Wikipedia: http://tinyurl.com/3dqh9q
- Reuters: http://tinyurl.com/37rzsb
- ABC: http://tinyurl.com/36vcwa
(18 September 2007)

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