AARHUS, Denmark (Reuters) - A court ruled on Thursday that a Danish newspaper did not libel Muslims by printing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that unleashed a storm of protests in the Islamic world.
Seven Danish Muslim organizations brought the case, saying the paper had libeled them with the images by implying Muslims were terrorists. One cartoon depicted Mohammad with a bomb in his turban.
Jyllands-Posten, which published the 12 drawings in September last year, hailed the ruling, saying any other outcome would have been a catastrophe for a free press.
A Muslim imam said the plaintiffs would continue to fight in higher courts.
The cartoons were reprinted elsewhere and at least 50 people were killed as angry Muslims rioted in the Middle East and Asia. Three Danish embassies were attacked and many Muslims boycotted Danish goods.
Many Muslims consider it blasphemous to depict Mohammad.
“Of course it cannot be excluded that the drawings offended some Muslims,” the Aarhus court said in its ruling.
“But there is no sufficient reason to assume that the cartoons are or were intended to be insulting ... or put forward ideas that could hurt the standing of Muslims in society.”
The court ordered the seven organizations to pay the paper’s court expenses. The plaintiffs have appealed to a higher court.
“Anything but a clear acquittal would have been a catastrophe for freedom of the press and the media’s ability to fulfill its role in a democratic society,” Jyllands-Posten editor Carsten Juste said on the paper’s Web site.
“You can think what you want about the cartoons, but the newspaper’s unassailable right to print them has been set by both the country’s prosecutors and the court system.”
The ruling said some of the cartoons did not depict Mohammad or have a religious subject, while others fell outside the scope of defamation laws.
But the court did find that three of the cartoons fell within what the law could deem as insulting.
“I‘m not surprised, shocked or disappointed,” said Ahmed Abu-Laban, a Copenhagen imam active in one of the organizations that brought the lawsuit.
“Freedom of speech has been the issue from the beginning. It is seen differently in Europe than we see it.”
He urged Danish journalists to exercise self-censorship when dealing with sensitive subjects and said he hoped Denmark would pass laws guaranteeing “the dignity of people”.
“Islam has been demonized and we pay a high price in discrimination,” he said. “There is blasphemy and discrimination, but now it’s interpreted to save the face of the government.”
In March, Danish prosecutors declined to press charges against the newspaper under Danish blasphemy and anti-racism laws.
Additional reporting by Rasmus Jorgensen in Aarhus and Kim McLaughlin in Copenhagen