'Shocking' sentence

Belarussian authorities shut down the Zgoda (Consensus) paper in March 2006, around the time when other European journals began reprinting the cartoons.

The security service, still known by its Soviet-era name, the KGB, began an investigation after Muslims in the ex-Soviet state complained.

Miklos Haraszti, media freedom representative for the 56-nation Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, protested against Sdvizhkov's jailing, calling the case against him "shocking" and saying he should be freed.

"Persecution of journalists for trying to inform the public on important issues is a misuse of hate speech laws," Haraszti said in a statement from Vienna.

"In fact the Belarus government has used the international controversy around the cartoons as a pretext to eliminate a critical voice from public life."

Repressive government

Haraszti also blasted the 16,000-euro fine imposed on another newspaper produced by Zgoda's former editorial staff, Novy Chas, which will likely force the paper's closure.

"I see the imprisonment of Sdvizhkov, the closing of Zgoda, and the crushing fine against Novy Chas as part of a campaign against a team of independent journalists, one of the few that are still working in Belarus," Haraszti said.

Belarus has often been attacked by human rights organisations and Western governments as repressive.

Muslims constitute about two or three per cent of the 10 million residents of the country.

The Muslim community had called for leniency in the case.

Dutch plea

Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, Jan Peter Balkenende, the country's prime minister, has appealed for restraint over a yet to be screened film in which a right-wing populist politician plans to lay out his view of the Koran.

Jan Peter Balkenende has appealed for
restraint over the yet to be screened film [AP]
Balkenende said it was unclear what Geert Wilders, whose anti-Islamic comments have led to death threats, would say in the film, but there were concerns in the Netherlands and abroad.

The prime minister said: "The Netherlands has a tradition of freedom of speech, religion and beliefs. The Netherlands also has a tradition of respect, tolerance and responsibility. Unnecessarily offending a certain belief or group has no place in that.

"A free and unhindered debate, and respect in dealing with each other flow from both traditions, and the cabinet shall uphold both traditions and calls on everybody to do so."

Dutch public broadcaster TROS said the film was expected to be shown on January 25, but it was unclear on which television station.

The Volkskrant newspaper reported on Friday that the government had prepared a 20-page document dealing with potential threats to public safety if Wilders' film is screened.

The document also deals with the evacuation of Dutch embassies, the paper said.