World News

Belarus court frees Mohammad cartoon publisher

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus’s Supreme Court on Friday freed an editor jailed for reproducing cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, one of three detainees whose release is seen by the West as key to improving ties with the ex-Soviet state.

Alexander Sdvizhkov, editor of the independent Zgoda (consensus) newspaper, was jailed for three years last month. He was freed after Belarus’s Supreme Court reduced his sentence to three months.

“The Supreme Court backed the appeal and, based on health and humanitarian considerations, reduced the sentence to three months,” said court spokeswoman Anastasia Tsimanovich. “Given the time spent in detention, he was released.”

The release of three remaining detainees viewed as “political prisoners” in the West is a fundamental condition set by Western countries for improving relations with Belarus, led by President Alexander Lukashenko since 1994.

Still in detention are Belarus’s most prominent inmate, academic Alexander Kozulin, who challenged Lukashenko’s bid for re-election in 1996, and Andrei Kim, a businessman detained in connection with protests last month by small entrepreneurs.

The 12 cartoons portraying the founder of Islam, including one showing the prophet with a bomb in his turban, first appeared in a Danish newspaper and outraged Muslims who saw them as blasphemous.

Belarussian authorities shut down Zgoda in March 2006, around the time when other European journals began reprinting the cartoons. The drawings were reproduced in Danish newspapers this month in protest at an alleged plot to kill the cartoonist.

Lukashenko, accused by Western countries of crushing freedom of expression and assembly, is barred from entering the European Union and United States on grounds of rigging his re-election.

The president denies any political overtones in any conviction made by Belarussian courts. But last week he said the issue of detainees was “closed” after Kozulin was offered the chance to travel to Germany to seek treatment for his wife.

Kozulin was jailed for 5-1/2 years on charges of inciting violence in connection with mass protests that followed Lukashenko’s landslide election in 1996.

Lukashenko quarrelled last year with traditional ally Russia over energy prices, and Belarus then sought better ties with the West, which demanded in exchange improvements in what it saw as a poor human rights record.

In recent months, Belarussian courts have ordered the early release of several opposition activists.

The president has toned down criticism of the European Union, which has cautiously praised Minsk for the release of detainees and restraint in dealing with opposition rallies.