PARIS (Reuters) - A French court on Thursday ruled in favor of a satirical weekly that had printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, rejecting accusations by Islamic groups who said the publication incited hatred against Muslims.
Following a recommendation by the public prosecutor, the court said the cartoons published by the weekly Charlie Hebdo fell under the category of freedom of expression and did not constitute an attack on Islam in general.
“The acceptable limits of freedom of expression have not been overstepped, with the contentious pictures participating in a public debate of general interest,” the court said.
The cartoons, originally published in 2005 by a Danish daily, provoked violent protests in Asia, Africa and the Middle East that left 50 people dead. Several European publications reprinted them as an affirmation of free speech.
With France’s presidential election just a month away, the court case has been overshadowed by election politics and added to a debate about freedom of speech and whether religions can be criticized.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative presidential frontrunner, his centrist rival Francois Bayrou, and Socialist party leader Francois Hollande have all spoken out in defense of the weekly.
Charlie Hebdo publisher Philippe Val has said he published the caricatures in February 2006 after the editor-in-chief of the Paris tabloid France Soir was fired for reprinting them.
“I am happy, not just for Charlie, but for everyone,” Val said after the ruling. “It’s good news for those who believe in freedom of expression and for Muslims who are secular and support the ideals of the republic.”
The Paris Grand Mosque, World Islamic League and Union of French Islamic Organizations (UOIF) sued the magazine over its publication of two of the Danish caricatures and one of its own.
UOIF said it would appeal against Thursday’s decision.
The Muslim groups said the cartoon showing a bomb in the Prophet’s turban branded all Muslims as terrorists, as did Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon showing the Prophet reacting to Islamist militants by saying: “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.”
But the court said that while the cartoon picturing the bomb in the Prophet’s turban could offend Muslims if seen on its own, the picture had to be judged in the context of the magazine issue, which had treated religious fundamentalism.
Even if the cartoon in itself was “shocking or hurting for Muslims, there is no deliberate desire to offend them,” it said.
Courts in France, which observes a strict separation of church and state in the public sphere, have repeatedly defended free speech rights against religious objections.
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders welcomed the court decision, saying: “This judgment is a victory of press freedom and is in no case the defeat of one community.”