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French Paper Cleared in Publishing Cartoons of Prophet Muhammad

A French satirical newspaper has been cleared of insulting Muslims by publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. The ruling is considered a victory for free speech. Anita Elash has more for VOA from Paris.

The case involving the weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo has been closely watched in France, and provoked a national debate over whether the right to free speech takes precedence over religious sensibilities.

Charlie Hebdo was one of several papers around the world that reprinted two caricatures of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, first published in Denmark in 2005. One of the cartoons depicted the Prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban. An original third drawing by a French cartoonist showed the Prophet in tears, saying "It is hard to be loved by fools," an apparent reference to Islamic extremists.

The paper's director had risked a six-month prison sentence and a $30,000 fine.

Lawyers for the groups suing the paper for defamation said Charlie Hebdo had gone too far, and had publicly abused a group of people because of their religion.

Charlie Hebdo's director, Philippe Val, acknowledged that the cartoons might have upset some fundamentalist Muslims. But he said democracy involved debate, and religion can be debated in a democracy.

The state prosecutor in the trial argued in favor of the magazine. The judges agreed that Charlie Hebdo had done nothing wrong. They said that, taken by itself, the drawing of Prophet Muhammad with a bomb could have been shocking and hurtful to Muslims, but they said the cartoons were a comment on fundamentalism and that Charlie Hebdo meant no harm.

The conservative Union of French Islamic Organizations said it would appeal the decision.

Other newspapers that have been taken to court for publishing the caricatures have been acquitted.