Cartoonist fears jail over blasphemy charge

Stuttgart, Austria -- He meant it as a piece of religious satire, a playful look at the life of Jesus. But Gerhard Haderer's depiction of Christ as a binge-drinking friend of Jimi Hendrix and naked surfer high on cannabis has caused a furore that could potentially land the cartoonist in jail.

Haderer did not even know that his book, The Life of Jesus, had been published in Greece until he received a summons to appear in court in Athens in January charged with blasphemy.

He was given a six-month suspended sentence in absentia, but if he loses his appeal next month his sentence could be increased to two years.

Haderer's book is the first to be banned in Greece for more than 20 years, and he is the first artist to fall prey of the European arrest warrant system since it was introduced in June 2002.

Yesterday in Vienna, a group of prominent writers and poets called a press conference to draw attention to the plight of Haderer, an Austrian, whose case they claim is crucial to the freedom of international artists.

"It is unbelievable that a person can write a book in his home country and be condemned and threatened with imprisonment by another," said Nikki Conrad, a human rights expert who organised yesterday's press conference. "But he is not going to just sit back and accept this injustice. He is prepared to take this to the European court of human rights. When Gerhard first got the summons he thought it was a joke. But now he is starting to get a bit nervous."

Mr Conrad added that a 1,000-signature petition of international artists, signed by people including the Nobel prize winner Elfriede Jelinek, would be delivered to the EU within the next two weeks.

"This campaign is crucial for the future freedom of international artists. Haderer is unique and situations like this will inhibit his artistic style," said the poet Gerhard Ruiss.

The Austrian comedian Hubert Kramar, who is next week due to star in a new satirical play about Christ, turned up to the press conference dressed as Jesus. "We are supposed to be living in a democratic society. Greece is in Europe and the whole idea of the European Union is that everything is supposed to be more open. But what happened to Haderer is scaring artists like me," he said.

Haderer's 40-page book has been already published in seven countries, including Germany, where 100,000 copies have been sold. Well known in Germany for his weekly illustrations in the news magazine Stern, he is to appeal against his six-month sentence in Athens on April 13.