BELARUS Belarus on Friday jailed for three years an editor of an independent newspaper who reproduced cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that first appeared in Denmark in 2005 and caused mass demonstrations across the Muslim world.
The 12 cartoons portraying the founder of Islam, including one showing the prophet with a bomb in his turban, outraged Muslims who saw them as blasphemous. More than 50 people died in protests across the world the following year.
Belarussian authorities shut down the "Zgoda" (Consensus) paper in March 2006, around the time when other European journals began reprinting the cartoons. The security service, still known by its Soviet-era name, the KGB, began an investigation after Muslims in the ex-Soviet state complained.
Editor Alexander Sdvizhkov was sentenced to three years in jail in a closed session of the court for incitement of religious and national hatred.
"May God and the holy cross be with us," Sdvizhkov said afterwards. His lawyer said she would appeal.
Muslims constitute about two or three percent of the 10 million residents of the country wedged between Russia and three members of the European Union. The Muslim community had called for leniency in the case.
Miklos Haraszti, media freedom representative for the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, protested against Sdvizhkov's jailing, calling the case against him "shocking" and saying he should be freed.
"Persecution of journalists for trying to inform the public on important issues is a misuse of hate speech laws," Haraszti said in a statement from Vienna. "In fact the Belarus government has used the international controversy around the cartoons as a pretext to eliminate a critical voice from public life."
President Alexander Lukashenko is accused by the West of ruling the country with an iron grip, jailing opponents, shutting down independent media and rigging polls, including his own re-election to a third term in 2006.
(Reporting by Andrey Makhovsky in Minsk; writing by Sabina Zawadzki)