Newspaper Editor Gets Three Years over Muhammad Cartoons

Reporters Without Borders reports from Belarus:

Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the three-year prison sentence passed today by a court in Minsk on Alyaksandr Zdvizhkou [var. Alexander Sdvizhkov], former deputy editor of the weekly Zhoda, for reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that first appeared in a Danish newspaper. He was found guilty of “inciting racial hatred” under article 130 of the criminal code at the end of a trial behind closed doors.

That would be the same Belarus where one can buy anti-Semitic tomes such as Convicting Those Who Slaughter Russia (which quotes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion), and Stalin’s Testament, which carries a special endorsement from President Alexander Lukashenko – whose recent Borat-like ruminations on how the city of Bobrusk was a “pig sty” on account of the Jews living there led to an international outcry. Other books in similar vein were noted by the Simon Wiesenthal centre in August; meanwhile, the head of the country’s Pentecostal Union has complained that state television featured his church in a documentary on “destructive cults”.

So why the rather hypocritical crackdown over the Danish cartoons? Lukashenko’s increasing links with Iran are a doubtless significant factor; however, Reporters Without Borders notes that internal politics are also behind the prosecution and jailing:

Zhoda was linked to Alyaksandr Kazulin, who ran against President Alexandre Lukashenko in the March 2006 presidential election. Lukashenko was very critical of Zhoda and Kazulin in a televised speech during the campaign, calling Kazulin a “hoodlum.” The economic supreme court closed Zhoda down on 17 March 2006.

Interfax adds that:

The Belarusian Supreme Court closed Zgoda in March 2006. The newspaper was headed by Alexey Korol, an activist of the Belarusian Social-Democratic party Gramada. The newspaper’s February 18-26, 2006 issue published an article titled Political Creativeness, which was illustrated by a number of cartoons, including those depicting the Prophet Muhammad.

According to Belarusian News:

The case was opened in February 2006 following a complaint by Ismail Varanovich, mufti of the Spiritual Association of Muslims in Belarus. However, the mufti said ahead of the trial that he did not demand criminal punishment for the journalist.

The same source names the judge in the case as Ruslan Aniskevich; he was in the news a few months ago when he took over the trial of five “Young Front” youth opposition activists when the appointed judge refused to take part. Charter 97 quoted a witness at the time:

…in the court room people can hear fairly well how hundreds of people were chanting “Freedom!” outside the court. The defendants, the Young Front members, are quite self-possessed, while the judge, Ruslan Aniskevich, and his assistant, on the contrary, look very frightened…

That case ended in finings, and harsh words from US Ambassador Karen Stewart, who observed the proceedings.

It should be recalled that Lukashenko doesn’t just object to the Muhammad cartoons; he’s also thin-skinned about his own image being taken in vain in satirical drawings, and “offending the honour of Lukashenko” is a criminal offence. The cartoon below is one of several that have led to arrests.