Cleric's Lawyers: Death to Yemeni Publisher of Muhammad Cartoons

Lawyers for a cleric have urged a judge in Yemen to condemn to death a local editor who published the Danish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, the newspaper's Web site said Thursday.

The editor of The Yemen Observer, Mohammed Al-Asadi, told The Associated Press he is being prosecuted by both the state and a prominent Islamic cleric, Sheik Abdulmajid al-Zindani, whom the United States has accused of supporting terrorism.

Editors of two other Yemeni papers that published the cartoons, Al-Ra'i al-Am and Al-Huriya, have also been charged with offending Islam. Their trials have not yet started.

It appeared unlikely that a court would hand down executions in any of these cases. Yemen, a poor, lawless, Arab country at the foot of the Arabian Peninsula, has a secular, U.S.-allied government that controls the judiciary.

But the case highlights once again the extent of the sensitivities over these cartoons throughout the Muslim world — even when, as in this case, they are displayed in a critical context.

The Yemen Observer published thumbnail copies of some of the cartoons in its Feb. 4 edition, but it covered them with a thick black cross to show its disapproval. In two accompanying articles, the paper condemned the cartoons and reported reactions from across the Muslim world.

When al-Asadi appeared in court on Wednesday, 21 lawyers representing al-Zindani demanded the death penalty for the editor by recounting how the Prophet Muhammad approved of the killing of a lady who had insulted him, the newspaper reported on its Web site.

"They said that they wanted the same punishment to be applied to those who abuse the prophet," al-Asadi told the AP, "but the judge said there were many things missing from the prosecution team's argument, and told them to complete their file."

The lawyers also asked the court to close the newspaper and confiscate its assets.

The state prosecutor asked the court to impose the maximum sentence, but did not specify whether the editor should be charged under criminal law, which allows for the death penalty, or under the press law, which carries a maximum sentence of a year in prison, al-Asadi said.

Neither the state prosecutor nor al-Zindani could be reached Thursday because of the late hour.

Al-Asadi said the prosecutor left the choice of law to the judge before the trial, which was attended by representatives of Amnesty International, was adjourned to March 22.

"The judge is very understanding and he knows that the articles written about the cartoons made it clear that the newspaper condemned them and defended Islam and the prophet, but I cannot forecast the judge's decision," Al-Asadi said when the AP in Cairo called him at his home in the Yemeni capital, San'a.

The cartoons were first published in a Danish paper last September. They were reprinted in European papers in January and February, provoking a wave of protests and riots in Arab and Muslim countries. Demonstrators were killed in Libya and Afghanistan.

The mainstream Sunni sect of Islam, to which most Yemenis belong, bans any image of the prophet as likely to insult him or encourage idolatry.

Al-Zindani, who enjoys support in Islamic fundamentalist circles in Yemen, has been listed by the United Nations as a suspected financier of terrorism.

The official Saba News Agency reported last month that President Bush had written to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh calling for al-Zindani's arrest. Saba reported that Yemen requested evidence of al-Zindani's involvement in terror.

The government is a partner with the United States in the war on terrorism, but the U.S. was displeased when 23 Al Qaeda convicts escaped last month from a prison in Yemen.