Yemeni Journalists on Trial for Republishing Cartoons

Three Yemeni journalists are on trial because their newspapers republished the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. The defendants face fines, and possibly jail time. But their chief concern is the menacing court of public opinion. Kristen Gillespie reports.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And the furor in the Islamic world over those Danish newspaper cartoons has died down somewhat. But the satirical depictions of the Prophet Muhammad have not been forgotten.

In Yemen, three journalists whose newspapers reproduced the cartoons are on trial. They face fines and potential jail time, but they say their real problem is the vigilante justice waiting for them outside the courtroom.

Kristen Gillespie traveled to Yemen's capital, Sanaa, and she filed this report.

KRISTEN GILLESPIE reporting:

Yemen is an isolated mountainous country on the very tip of the Arabian Peninsula. It's got a population of 20 million people and 60 million guns. And a shaky legal system that's no match for the tribal law that reigns throughout most of the country.

So for the three Yemeni journalists on trial here, it's the court of public opinion that really counts.

AKRAM SABRA (Journalist on trial): (Through translator) In Islamic law, when you attack the Prophet or Islam, every extremist can see that if he kills us, he'll go to heaven.

GILLESPIE: Akram Sabra is one of the defendants in the trial. He says that since his paper, al-Hurriya, published the cartoons, he rarely leaves his house anymore and when he does, armed bodyguards go with him.

Mr. SABRA: (Through translator) This is why we want the case against us dropped. We expect that even if we were given light sentences, the fact that we are convicted means our lives will be in danger.

GILLESPIE: Sabra spent 20 days in prison after the cartoons were published in February. He was jammed in a cell with so many other prisoners, that each had about three feet of space. It's the government's way of intimidating me, Sabra says.

(Soundbite of street noise)

GILLESPIE: In the crowded streets of Sanaa, small dilapidated trucks park along the roadside selling cassettes.

(Soundbite of music)

GILLESPIE: They are sermons and religious songs by preachers from across the Arab world. Here in Yemen the most popular religious figure is Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani. He also happens to be behind the push to convict the three journalists. Zindani has raised thousands of dollars for 23 lawyers. They're making the case to the judge that the journalists should be harshly punished for insulting the Prophet and Islam.

(Soundbite of Sheikh Abdul-Majid al-Zindani speaking a foreign language)

GILLESPIE: One recent sermon, sold on cassette for under a dollar, spoke directly to Akram Sabra and his colleagues.

Sheikh ABDUL-MAJID AL-ZINDANI (Islamic Cleric; Leader, Reform Party): (Through translator) Don't apologize. You were once believers but now you're infidels.

GILLESPIE: And Zindani made it clear that in his view, death was a suitable punishment for reprinting the cartoons.

Sheikh AL-ZINDANI: (Through translator) If a Muslim insulted and mocked the Prophet--peace be upon him--this would be enough to excommunicate him, make an apostate of him, and condemn him to death.

GILLESPIE: Zindani is a leader of the Reform Party, Yemen's main opposition group. It's an Islamist party, but it's members are divided over Zindani's tactics in the court case. Khaled al-Ansi(ph) is also an Islamist and a prominent member of the Reform Party, but he's fighting Zindani's influence in court. As the head of Akram Sabra's defense team, Khaled al-Ansi says the idea that one Muslim can publicly call for the death of another has to stop.

Mr. KHALED AL-ANSI (Attorney): (Through translator) We're saying that this is not a real lawsuit. This is a way to publicly say it's religiously acceptable to kill the journalists, and this time it's coming from lawyers, not from religious clerics.

GILLESPIE: With his Hawaiian shirt and coffee mug that he picked up on a trip to the United States, Khaled al-Ansi says the government is playing the clerics and the press against each other. The clerics look like extremists and the press looks like it's against Islam. In a presidential election year, says al-Ansi, the government wins if it can undercut it's opponents.

Mr. AL-ANSI: (Through translator) Now that we have elections coming up, instead of the opposition and media talking about important issues such as corruption, social problems and unemployment, they're busy discussing side issues among themselves.

GILLESPIE: The trial is generating media interest outside Yemen with Amnesty International dispatching monitors to the courtroom. But for Akram Sabra and the other defendants, it's not the trial, but the restless followers of Zindani who worry them most.

Mr. SABRA: (Through translator) They say they want to punish me and that if the judiciary can't punish me, and if we're not tried the way they want, they have other ways to defend the Prophet.

GILLESPIE: For NPR News, I'm Kristen Gillespie.

(Soundbite of music)

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