X marks the spot

Observations on free speech

Dozens of people, most of them Muslims, are thought to have died in the violence that followed the publication of those infamous Danish cartoons depicting Muhammad. Someone I know could be the next.

I met Mohammed al-Asadi, the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Observer, at a course for investigative journalists in London in July 2004. A generous man, on his return home he wrote inviting all who had been on the course to Yemen and offering us his assistance if we ever needed it. Since then, he and I have exchanged the odd e-mail.

In February his newspaper's licence to print was suspended and he was arrested and charged, for republishing the cartoons. He faces a possible death sentence.

No, he had not made some headstrong stand for free speech. Alongside a denunciation of the cartoons as a great injustice against Islam, the Observer printed three thumbnail-sized images of the cartoons, each deliberately obscured with a thick black cross.

Nor is there any possibility that this was a subversive or satirical act, because he had no such intentions. I know because in an e-mail I received six days before the cartoons appeared, al-Asadi wrote: "I have reviewed some of what Jyllands-Posten had published and I believe it to be a heinous mistake and dreadful deviation from the path of justice, reverence and equality. One of these cartoons pictures Allah's Messenger PBUH [Peace Be Upon Him] wearing a turban that resembles a bomb wrapped around his head. What a pathetic projection!"

The editor's intentions, however, are of no account, says the prosecution. All that matters is the offence given. Some of the prosecutors have called for al-Asadi to be put to death, in line with what they say is clear evidence that Muhammad approved of the death of those who insulted him. The case has been adjourned until 19 April.