COPENHAGEN (Reuters) - Four men were jailed for 12 years each on Monday for plotting a gun attack on a Danish newspaper over its cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, whose publication in 2005 sparked deadly riots across the Muslim world.
The men, a Tunisian and three Swedish citizens of Arab origin, were caught on police surveillance tapes discussing whether to behead or shoot their intended victims, the chief prosecutor told Reuters.
The plot, regarded by security experts as the most serious in modern Danish history, was foiled in late 2010 by a joint operation by Danish and Swedish police, who had been monitoring the group for weeks.
Presiding judge Katrine Eriksen said the four men had planned to carry out an attack at the offices of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper, which first published the dozen cartoons seven years ago, and kill as many people as possible.
She also ordered the four, who had pleaded not guilty to the main terrorism charge, be expelled from Denmark after serving their sentence and instructed them to pay the trial costs.
Defence lawyers had argued police surveillance recordings were insufficient proof that an attack was actually being planned. It was not immediately clear if the men would appeal. They have four weeks to do so.
During the trial, prosecutors named Tunisian national Mounir Ben Mohamed Dhahri as the ringleader of the group which also comprised Swedish nationals Munir Awad, Omar Abdalla Aboelazm and Sahbi Ben Mohamed Zalouti.
The group was already under surveillance when Dhahri, Awad and Aboelazm drove to Denmark from Sweden to carry out their attack. The trio were arrested in a Copenhagen suburb on December 29, 2010 while Zalouti was detained the same day in a suburb of the Swedish capital Stockholm.
Danish police found the men in possession of a machine-pistol equipped with a silencer, a 9mm pistol and ammunition and plastic ties the prosecutors said could have been used as handcuffs, and $20,000 in cash.
"It has illustrated how far they were willing to go, and that was to kill as many as possible," Chief prosecutor Gyrithe Ulrich told Reuters after sentencing.
"We have heard (on surveillance recordings) beheadings were considered, or whether they would shoot," she said. "We know from the findings of the weapons that they decided on shootings."
Jakob Scharf, head of Denmark's state security police, has likened the Copenhagen plot to the 2008 attack in Mumbai, when 10 Pakistani gunmen killed 166 people in a three-day assault at landmarks in the Indian city, including two hotels and a Jewish center.
He told Reuters last week that the cartoons furor meant Denmark would probably remain a target of militant Islamist groups for another decade.
The editor in chief of Jyllands-Posten and the chief executive of the publisher declined to comment on Monday's verdict.
The paper was the first to print the set of a dozen cartoons lampooning Islam and the Prophet Mohammad in 2005. The most famous depicted him wearing a bomb in his turban. The images touched of riots in Muslim countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia in 2006 in which at least 50 people died.
Many Muslims consider any depiction of the Prophet to be offensive.
The cartoons controversy shocked Danes, who see themselves as a peaceful nation better known abroad for providing peacekeepers in the world's trouble spots.
It also sharply divided public opinion, with some Danes saying the paper should never have published such provocative images while others said it should not bend to threats to freedom of expression.
The furor has forced the newspaper, cartoonists and other individuals associated with the cartoons to live under police protection due to threats against them.
Last year an axe-wielding Somali was jailed for 10 years for the attempted murder of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew the best known of the cartoons, in a break-in at his home on New Year's Day 2010.
Danish police last week detained two brothers, originally from Somalia, on suspicion of plotting an attack. They were remanded in custody for four weeks pending further investigation.
Reporting by Mette Fraende; Writing by John Acher; Editing by Jon Boyle