A Saudi Arabian lawyer has threatened to use British courts to overturn a Danish free speech ruling by bringing a defamation case over cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that depicted Islam’s founder as a terrorist.
By Bruno Waterfield in Brussels
Published: 4:22PM GMT 16 Mar 2010
Faisal Yamani, a Jeddah based lawyer, is planning to take a case to London’s libel courts on behalf of over 90,000 descendants of Muhammad who have claimed that the drawings have defamed them and the Islamic faith.
Cartoon caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad were published in Danish newspapers in 2006 triggering violent protests across the Muslim world and riots which claimed the lives of over 50 people.
According to Danish press reports, the case can be heard in the Britain because the images, including a caricature of Muhammad with a bomb shaped turban, have been freely accessible via the internet.
Danish politicians and publishers are furious that European Union rules reward “libel tourism” by enforcing British defamation rulings across Europe.
Ebbe Dal, managing director of Danske Dagblades Forening, the Danish national newspaper association, is concerned that Britain’s tough libel laws could be used to restrict free speech in liberal countries such as Denmark.
“The Danish courts have decided that the case is not actionable and that we are allowed to print the drawings in Danish newspapers and websites,” he said.
“It would be very odd if a civilised country like Britain could go against that. If this succeeded we would have to pay a lot of money to Saudi Arabians misusing the British courts to make it difficult for freedom of speech.”
Mr Yamani demanded last year that 11 Danish newspapers remove all cartoon images of Muhammad from their websites and issue front page apologies along with promises that the images would never be printed again.
Only one newspaper, Politiken, agreed to the demand leading to the new threat of an expensive British court action backed by wealthy Saudi Muslims.
Lars Barfoed, the Danish justice minister, has complained to the European Commission that EU rules forcing Denmark to enact British court rulings would damage freedom of expression.
“It’s fundamentally reasonable that judgments in the EU can often be exercised across borders. But it would be taking it to the extreme if a UK court could rule against the Danish media and then require compensation and court costs to be paid,” he said.
EU officials have acknowledged that libel judgements in the British courts have become a major issue since “Rome II” rules on mutual recognition of European court rulings entered into force last year.
“We are well aware that there is a problem with libel and defamation tourism involving Britain, where judges can be sympathetic and damages awards are high. There will be a review next year,” said an official.
A British Ministry of Justice working group on libel law is expected to publish a report calling for reform later this month.
“The government is concerned about any potential chilling effect that our libel laws are having on freedom of speech,” said a spokesman.