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Bangladesh suspends magazine over controversial cartoon

DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladeshi police broke up a protest march by hundreds of Muslims after Friday prayers over the publication of a cartoon which they say offended their religion.

Police hold sticks near a protester in Dhaka, September 21, 2007. REUTERS/Ashikur Rahman

Bangladesh suspended publication of Alpin, a weekly satire magazine of leading Bengali daily Prothom Alo, and its publishers apologized and appealed for forgiveness.

A cartoon in which a small boy referred to his cat as “Mohammad cat” provoked the outrage. The protesters said it was a deliberate attempt by the cartoonist to ridicule Islam’s Prophet Mohammad.

Prophet Mohammad is highly revered by Muslims, and the protesters objected to the use of his name for a cat.

Police used batons to disperse the protesters, who set off on their march from the capital’s Baitul Mokarram mosque after noon prayers.

Defying emergency rules which ban such protests, they burned copies of the Prothom Alo newspaper and chanted demands that its editor and publishers be arrested.

The march stopped half way to the Prothom Alo office, at Dhaka’s Karwanbazar area, witnesses said.

Moulana Obaidul Haque, Khatib (head preacher) of Dhaka’s Baitul Mokarram mosque, has urged Muslims to accept the apology and not pursue the issue further.

The cartoonist, Arifur Rahman, has been arrested by police, while the editor of Prothom Alo, along with editors of several other leading dailies, have appealed for forgiveness over it.

Arifur, now in jail, has had no chance to explain to the public what he exactly wanted to say through his cartoon.

It was not clear what charges the police might bring against Arifur but a government official had said the cartoon could be part of a deliberate design to provoke violence and disrupt the peace.

A large number of police have been deployed near the Baitul Mokarram mosque and outside the daily’s office.

On Wednesday police broke up a street march by hundreds of Islamists in Dhaka, demanding “death to the Prothom Alo editor” and “hang the cartoonist”.

A government statement on Thursday said: “The magazine in its 431st issue has hurt the sentiment of devoted Muslims” and risked upsetting law and order.

It asked Prothom Alo publishers to explain in two weeks “why, in this circumstance, the magazine ... shall not be banned and legal action not be taken against the publishers.”

“Meanwhile, the Prothom Alo has been asked to suspend the publication of the magazine until the matter is resolved,” the statement said.

On Friday the government also confiscated a special issue of another Bengali weekly, Saptahik 2000, citing contents that might hurt Muslim religious sentiment, the home ministry said on Friday. It did not elaborate.

Bangladesh has been under a state of emergency since January when an army-backed interim government took charge, following months of political violence.

It cancelled an election planned for January 22 and launched a massive drive against corruption, in which two former prime ministers and dozens of ex-ministers have been detained.