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Sudan12 May 2005

Alarm about trial of journalist on blasphemy charge

Reporters Without Borders voiced alarm today about the climate of hate surrounding the blasphemy trial of Mohamed Taha Mohamed Ahmed, the editor of the Sudanese daily newspaper Al-Wifaq, for whom the death penalty is being demanded not only by the prosecutor but also by the thousands of demonstrators who have been disrupting the trial.

"We are very disturbed by this terrifying case in which a journalist is being tried by an assize court subject to the pressure of a frenzied mob," the press freedom organization said.

"It would be disastrous if Sudan, as it tries to emerge from years of violence, were to put a journalist to death for writing an article that sparked a religious dispute, and we therefore urge the authorities to realize that this spectacle of violence and hate can only aggravate a deplorable climate that has lasted too many years," Reporters Without Borders said.

"The charges against Mohamed Taha Mohamed Ahmed seem to us to be unfounded, the prosecutor’s demands are totally disproportionate, and the way the trial is being conducted is clearly unjust," the organization added.

Ahmed’s trial on charge of blasphemy began on 4 May. He was arrested on the evening of 8 May at the behest of the office of the prosecutor responsible for press offences. The following day, the prosecutor’s office ordered the closure of his newspaper until the end of the trial.

The imams of Khartoum called on the faithful to gather outside the assize court on 10 May, on the third day of Ahmed’s trial. Since the trial began, thousands had been demonstrating outside the court and chanting such slogans as "death to the apostate." On 10 May, the size and anger of the crowd was such that the trial was adjourned and Ahmed had to be taken away under heavy police escort.

A member of the Muslim Brothers movement as a well as a journalist, Ahmed was formally accused in court on 4 May with insulting the Prophet Mohammed in an article in his newspaper, and the prosecution requested the death penalty.

The article was about an Islamic manuscript more than 500 years old that raises doubts about Mohammed’s parentage. Entitled "The unknown in the Prophet’s life" and believed to have been written by Al-Maqrizi, a Muslim historian, the manuscript claims that the real name of Mohammed’s father was not Abdallah but Abdel Lat, or "Slave of Lat," an idol of the pre-Islamic era.

The Associated Press news agency reported that Ahmed apologized in a statement to the press but continues to deny the charges.

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