COPENHAGEN: Four men were convicted on Monday of plotting a gun attack on a leading Danish newspaper over its cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), whose publication sparked deadly riots across the Muslim world.
The men, a Tunisian and three Swedish citizens of Arab origin, had denied charges of terrorism though one pleaded guilty to illegal weapons possession.
The four, arrested in a joint Danish-Swedish police operation at the end of 2010, were acquitted by a Danish court on two charges of weapons possession for technical reasons, court officials said.
Judge Katrine Eriksen told the court that the target of the planned attack was the offices of the newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which first published the dozen cartoons seven years ago and that the goal was to kill as many people as possible there.
“The accused…are guilty of terrorism”, Eriksen said. “(They) agreed and prepared acts to kill people.”
Prosecutors said Tunisian national Mounir Ben Mohamed Dhahri was the ringleader of the group. The others, Munir Awad, Omar Abdalla Aboelazm and Sahbi Ben Mohamed Zalouti were Swedish nationals.
All four were residents in Sweden but Dhari, Awad and Aboelazm had travelled to Denmark by car and were arrested in a Copenhagen suburb on December 29, 2010. Zalouti was arrested the same day in Sweden.
Police found them in possession of a machine-pistol, silencer and ammunition and plastic strips which the prosecutors said could have been used as handcuffs, and $20,000 in cash.
The four men were expected to be sentenced later on Monday for their role in what security experts have called the most serious terrorist plot in Denmark’s history.
The maximum sentence in Denmark for terrorism is life in prison but terrorism offences have so far been punished by terms ranging from seven to 12 years in prison.
Chief prosecutor Gyrithe Ulrich urged the court to jail Dhahri for at least 16 years and sought at least 14 years jail for Awad, Aboelazm and Zalouti.
Zalouti’s lawyer argued his client was repeatedly heard on surveillance recordings saying that he did not want to take part so he should be treated leniently.
Zalouti got out of the car that the other three used to travel to Denmark from Sweden but he failed to alert police of the attack plans, prosecutors said.
Jakob Scharf, head of Denmark’s state security police, has likened the plot to the 2008 attack in Mumbai, when 10 Pakistan-based gunmen killed 166 people in a three-day assault at landmarks in the Indian city, including two hotels and a Jewish centre.
Scharf told Reuters last week that the cartoons meant Denmark would probably remain a target of terrorist groups for another decade.
The editor in chief of Jyllands-Posten and the chief executive of the publisher declined to comment on Monday’s verdict.
The paper was the first to print the set of a dozen cartoons lampooning Islam and the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) in 2005. The images touched of riots in Muslim countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia in 2006 in which at least 50 people died.
The cartoons controversy shocked Danes, who see themselves as a peaceful nation better known abroad for providing peacekeepers in the world’s trouble spots.
It also sharply divided public opinion, with some Danes saying the paper should never have published such provocative images while others said it should not bend to threats to freedom of expression.
The furore has forced the newspaper, cartoonists and other individuals associated with the cartoons to live under police protection due to threats against them.
Last year an axe-wielding Somali was jailed for 10 years for the attempted murder of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew the best known of the cartoons, in a break-in at his home on New Year’s Day 2010.