Muslim leader says punishment is too harsh for Zgoda editor

“I would have freed this journalist, if I had powers,” says Ismail Varanovich, the chairman of the Muslim Community in Belarus.

He told the European Radio for Belarus why he actually defended the editor of Zgoda newspaper and why he believes that the scandalous publication should be treated as simple information about what was publicized in the Western press.

- You know that the Minsk City Court today sentenced journalist Zdvizhkov to three years in prison for trying to reprint a Mohammed caricature…

- I testified as a witness at the process. I attempted to mitigate his sentence. Zdvizhkov could only thank me as much as he could, of course.

- Don’t you think that the punishment is too harsh?

- Definitely, it is harsh. I asked for a softer verdict. Furthermore, Zdvizhkov did not call for any crimes. It was somewhat a report about what had been published in the Danish newspapers. This was my stance. I think there would be no outrage, no problem in our society.

- Did Zdvizhkov ask you for apology in court?

- Yes. He personally asked for an apology from me and all of our Muslim believers for the publication in the newspaper.

- If it were you to decide, would you forgive him?

- Yes, sure. Perhaps, I have made my life a bit more difficult with the authorities that were investigating this case.

- Why do you think so?

- Because the authorities expected me to speak differently. Perhaps, I acted opposite to their expectations…

- To what extent were Muslims discontented with this publication?

- They did not even have time to learn that this publication had taken place. When the government showed it to me, I had to respond and to write a letter. I was thus informed about it, because I am the leader of the Muslim Society of the Republic of Belarus.

- Where did you send your letter to?

- To the same body that notified me about this publication: the Committee for Religious Affairs and Nationalities.

- Did you write that you were indignant?

- I had to do so, because this was the way it was interpreted to me.

- Did they show you the newspaper?

- They did. They gave me the Xerox copies.

- Did they contain the caricatures? Because nobody saw this newspaper apart from you and a couple of more people…

- Well, yes. But I also warned our communities: if it appears in front of you accidentally, don’t react. This is only information about what was published in the other magazines and newspapers in Europe. This is how it was presented. That’s why there was no outrage from our communities.

- The editor-in-chief of Zgoda appealed to Muslims asking to help save Zdvizhkov from prison…

- We have to weigh the situation in terms of how it might affect us. We are a minority. We, Muslims, are very few in Belarus. So we have to be very careful.

- Can you recall how the Danish journalists were punished?

- Frankly speaking, I don’t know. I know that they demanded a death penalty for the author. I don’t know how everything ended, indeed. It was long time ago. I don’t remember. But when I saw Zdizhkov behind bars, I felt sorry for him. He was such a tiny skinny man…I really felt sorry for a human being. If I had powers, I would have freed him. But I don’t have the powers. You understand? As much as I could, I tried to make his fate easier.