PARIS – A French satirical weekly defended itself in court Wednesday against defamation charges over reprinting caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad that last year stoked outrage and violence across the Islamic world.
The case has drawn nationwide attention in a country with Western Europe's largest Muslim community and a strong commitment to freedom of expression and secularism. Leading candidates for France's presidential elections this spring have spoken in defense of Charlie-Hebdo magazine.
Charlie-Hebdo and the publication's director, Philippe Val, are charged with "publicly defaming a group of people because of their religion." The charge carries a possible six-month prison sentence and a fine of up to US$28,530.
The Paris Mosque and the Union of Islamic Organizations of France brought the charges.
The caricatures, one of which showed Muhammad with a bomb-shaped turban, were published first in a Danish paper in September 2005, and sparked angry protests across the Islamic world and in Europe. Many European papers later reprinted them in the name of media freedom.
Charlie-Hebdo ran the drawings last February. The magazine featured a cover page showing Muhammad with his head in his hands, crying and saying: "It's hard to be loved by idiots."
In opening arguments Wednesday, Val defended the decision to run the drawings, saying they were aimed "at ideas, not men."
"If we no longer have the right to laugh at terrorists, what arms are citizens left with?" he asked, adding "How is making fun of those who commit terrorist acts throwing oil on the fire?"
A lawyer for the magazine read out a letter from presidential candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, who is leading in polls ahead of the April-May race.
Sarkozy, who noted that he is often targeted by the magazine's cartoonists, said he preferred "too many caricatures to an absence of caricature."
A representative for the French Council of the Muslim Faith, an umbrella organization of Muslim groups, called Sarkozy's support of the magazine "unacceptable."
"It's out of the question for a minister for religious affairs to take such a position. There's no neutrality," Abdallah Zekri said. In France, religious affairs fall under the mandate of the interior minister.
Two other politicians, centrist candidate Francois Bayrou and the head of the Socialist party, Francois Hollande, were also expected to appear and possibly speak at the trial. Lawyers for Charlie-Hebdo requested the two politicians testify at the trial.
Observers did not expect the trial to elicit a backlash from France's 5-million-strong Muslim community.
Olivier Roy, a specialist on Islam at France's elite National Center for Scientific Research, or CNRS, said French Muslims regard the trial as a "nonevent."
"Even if Charlie-Hebdo is acquitted, as I fully expect it will be, I don't think we'll see any real reaction from French Muslims," he said.