May 23, 2006

Iran bans state newspaper over ethnic cartoon

By Parinoosh Arami

TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran has suspended publication of its
official state newspaper after it printed a cartoon that
sparked violent ethnic protests in the northwestern city of
Tabriz, a senior judiciary official said on Tuesday.

Cartoonist Mana Neyestani and the editor-in-chief of the
"Iran" newspaper, Mehrdad Qasemfar, were arrested over the
drawing that was deemed to insult Iran's Azeri minority,
Tehran's chief Prosecutor Saeed Mortazavi said.

"Some charges were brought against both of them and they
were transferred to Evin prison," he told state television. He
did not specify the charges.

Enraged by the cartoon, furious Azeris stoned government
buildings and banks in Tabriz, capital of Iran's province of
Eastern Azerbaijan, on Monday night, eyewitnesses in the city
told Reuters.

Tabriz Prosecutor Youssef Firouzi told the ISNA students
news agency that 54 people were arrested.

The Press Supervisory Board closed the paper for stirring
up ethnic rifts, state television reported.

The cartoon, which appeared in Friday's edition of Iran,
showed a boy repeating the Persian word for cockroach in
different ways while the uncomprehending bug in front of him
says "What?" in Azeri.

Neyestani's relatives told Reuters he had not intended to
insult Azeris.

The Azeris of northwestern Iran speak a language related to
Turkish. Although Azeris, who form about a quarter of Iran's
population, have many prominent figures among the commercial
elite, they are the butt of jokes among the majority Persians.

The conservative Siyasat-e Rouz daily said on Sunday a
crowd of Azeris had set fire to the Iran newspaper's local
office in the city of Orumiyeh, where Azeris form a majority.

Residents of Tabriz said it was quiet there on Tuesday but
there was a heavy police presence on the streets.