Yemen Editor Faces Death Penalty Over Mohammed Cartoons

Authorities in a number of Muslims countries have acted against newspapers for publishing the controversial Mohammed cartoons, but in Yemen a journalist may soon be fighting for his life after prosecutors demanded his execution. Yemen Observer Editor-in-Chief Muhammad al-Asadi was arrested after his English-language weekly paper published the cartoons early last month to illustrate how news reporting about their publication in European papers had sparked a global uproar. According to the paper, the cartoons were presented in “thumbnail” size, and “obscured with a thick black cross.” Nonetheless, al-Asadi was accused of violating a law prohibiting the publication of anything that harms Islam, and the government suspended the Observer’s license. Two independent Arabic-language papers are also facing legal action separately for reproducing the cartoons. Al-Asadi appeared Wednesday before a Sana’a court, where prosecutors called for the death penalty, and for the paper to be shut down completely and its assets confiscated. A report on the Yemen Observer’s website — which continues to publish although the paper edition has been frozen — said prosecution lawyers had recounted a story from the life of Mohammed in which Islam’s prophet had praised the killer of a woman who had insulted him. The lawyers argued that the same punishment should be applied in the case of those who “abuse” the prophet. “They also demanded personal financial compensation for the psychological trauma they claimed they suffered by the actions of the newspaper, which they said has impaired their ability to do their jobs and follow their normal daily lives.” The case was adjourned for two weeks. The Observer said the prosecution lawyers, of which there were more than a dozen, were being funded by Sheikh Abdel Majid Zindani, a religious leader and senior Islamist opposition party member. Zindani’s name appears on a U.S. list of suspected financiers of terrorism, and Yemeni media reported two weeks ago that Washington was urging the government to freeze his assets and prevent him from traveling abroad, in line with U.N. resolutions. A U.S. Treasury statement issued in 2004 called Zindani a loyalist of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and said the U.S. government had credible evidence that he “supports designated terrorists and terrorist organizations.” According to the State Department’s annual report on global human rights, released Wednesday, Yemen’s government does not respect freedom of the press despite a constitutional provision providing for it “within the limits of the law.” The report noted that Yemeni press laws criminalize certain criticism of the head of state, the publication of “false information” that can spread “chaos and confusion,” and “false stories intended to damage Arab and friendly countries.” “Yemen’s press freedom has been tested often lately and in the eyes of the outside world it remains a measure of the extent of democratization that Yemen would like to claim,” a contributor to another paper in the Gulf state, the Yemen Times, wrote in a column on the al-Asadi case. The media freedom lobby group Reporters Without Borders has recorded arrests of journalists in Yemen, Syria, Algeria and India for reprinting the cartoons caricaturing Mohammed, and the temporary or permanent closure of at least 14 publications in Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, Yemen, Malaysia and Indonesia for the same reason. “Whatever one thinks of the cartoons or whether they should be published, it is absolutely unjustified to jail or prosecute journalists, threaten them with death or shut down newspapers for this reason,” the group said earlier.