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French Court Acquits Paper That Printed Prophet Cartoons

A French court on Thursday cleared a satirical newspaper in a case brought by Muslim groups angered by its publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad.

Charlie-Hebdo, a weekly, and its director, Philippe Val, were accused of "publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion." Val had risked a six-month prison sentence and a fine of up to $29,250.

The case was closely followed in a country with Europe's largest Muslim community and a strong commitment to secularism and free speech.

Val said the ruling was a victory for secular French Muslims.

"This debate was necessary," he said.

Lhaj Thami Breze of the fundamentalist Union of Islamic Organizations of France, one of the groups that brought the suit, announced that he would appeal the decision. Francis Szpiner, a lawyer for the conservative Mosque of Paris, the other group behind the suit, said it was not likely to appeal.

At the trial in February, a state attorney called for the dismissal of the case, saying the cartoons denounced terrorists' use of the Muslim faith but did not damage Islam. The defense read a letter of support from former Interior Minister and presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who said he preferred "an excess of caricatures to an absence of caricatures."

On Feb. 8, 2006, the paper printed three caricatures — two of them reprints of those carried by a Danish newspaper in 2005 that stoked anger across the Islamic world. One caricature was an original.

In September, a Danish court rejected a lawsuit against the newspaper that first printed the cartoons — a verdict some Arab politicians and intellectuals warned would widen a cultural gap.

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