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French cartoons editor acquitted

Paris, March 22 (Reuters): A French court today ruled in favour of a satirical weekly that had printed cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad, rejecting accusations by Islamic groups who said the publication incited hatred against Muslims.

The court said the cartoons published by the weekly Charlie Hebdo were covered by freedom of expression laws and did not constitute an attack on Islam in general but on fundamentalists.

The cartoons, originally published in 2005 by a Danish daily, provoked violent protests in Asia, Africa and West Asia that left 50 people dead. Several European publications reprinted them as an affirmation of free speech.

With France’s presidential election just a month away, the court case has been overshadowed by election politics and added to a debate about freedom of speech.

Interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the conservative presidential frontrunner, his centrist rival Francois Bayrou, and Socialist party leader Francois Hollande have all spoken out in defence of the weekly.

The public prosecutor had argued in court that the cartoons were protected by freedom of speech and recommended that the case be dismissed.

The Paris Grand Mosque, World Islamic League and Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF) sued the magazine over its publication of two of the Danish caricatures and one of its own.

The Muslim groups said the cartoon showing a bomb in the Prophet’s turban slandered all Muslims as terrorists, as did Charlie Hebdo’s cartoon showing the Prophet reacting to Islamist militants by saying: “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” ”This is an attack on Muslims,” UOIF President Lhaj Thami Breze said.

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