2nd Russian Paper Shut in Cartoon Furor

Moscow, Russia — The owner of a small Russian weekly that printed a composite of the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad said Monday that he would close the newspaper. His was the second newspaper to close in Russia in the wake of international protests over the cartoons.

The newspaper, Our Region, based in Vologda, north of Moscow, which printed its illustration last Wednesday, was the first in Russia to publish, at least in part, the Danish cartoons. The publication prompted criticism from public officials, an apology from the local governor and a criminal investigation into the paper's activity.

The owner, Mikhail M. Smirnov, said he decided on his own to close the newspaper on Friday, even as the prosecutor general's office announced it would bring criminal charges against the paper's editor, Anna V. Smirnova.

Ms. Smirnova, who is also the owner's wife, faces charges of inciting religious animosity, a crime punishable by a maximum sentence of two to four years in prison.

Mr. Smirnov's decision followed one by Volgograd, in central Russia, to close its official newspaper after it printed a different illustration that included Muhammad, along with Moses, Jesus and Buddha. The cases reflected the sensitivity by Russian officials to any Islamic backlash and served as a measure of the limits of expression in a country where the media often endure government pressure, if not outright censorship.

Mr. Smirnov, in a telephone interview, apologized for the decision to print a version of the Danish cartoons. He added that the article with the illustration, which included commentary by religious and human rights leaders, was not intended to provoke anti-Islamic sentiments.

"My concern was about the people who worked at the newspaper, so that in the future neither the newspaper nor these people could be accused of fanning up inter-religious conflict," he said of his decision to shut the paper down.

The newspaper, part of a larger media company called Severinform, has a staff of three and a circulation of roughly 4,000.

He called the criminal investigation "absolutely disproportional."

Aleksei K. Simonov, the president of the Glasnost Defense Foundation in Moscow, said the two cases would lead to still more self-censorship. He said the law on inciting religious or ethnic hatred was so broadly interpreted that any discussion of religion risked investigation.

"You start to think what might happen," he said. "Think of Chekhov. His works are full of funny stories about priests."