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Trial starts over boy named Jihad, his 9/11 T-shirt

| Saturday, March 23, 2013, 9:24 p.m.

SORGUES, France — A T-shirt worn by a 3-year-old named Jihad has led to an unusual and politically charged criminal trial here that tests the limits of free speech — and common sense — in a France increasingly ill at ease with its Muslim population.

“I am a bomb,” the shirt read on the front. The back read, “Jihad Born Sept. 11.”

The prosecution and the defense have predicted that the outcome is likely to become a legal precedent for the country's 8 percent Muslim minority.

With fear of reprisals over the ongoing war in Mali, anti-terrorism police scour the country's poor suburbs in search of Muslim youths drawn by the call to jihad or revenge. An Islamist cell broken up in nearby Marignane this month was preparing to construct bombs for attacks in French cities, authorities declared.

The case in Sorgues, a small town just north of Avignon, began in September in an unlikely place: the local nursery school. As she dressed the children after a lunch break, a teacher there became alarmed when she saw Jihad's T-shirt.

Although little Jihad was, in fact, born on Sept. 11, the teacher realized it was an outrageous reference to the al-Qaida attacks on the United States in 2001, in which nearly 3,000 people were killed.

She spoke with the principal, who was equally upset and called in Jihad's 35-year-old Moroccan-born mother, Bouchra Bagour.

The single mother, who works as a secretary, apologized for causing trouble and said she had no intention of conveying a political message via her toddler. The shirt, she pledged, would be put away for good.

The issue did not rest there. The principal wrote a report to district authorities. And the mayor immediately stepped into action, asking for an investigation for possible criminal prosecution.

Before long, Bagour and her brother, Zeyad Bagour, 29, were called in separately by police and questioned about their religious and political leanings.

The uncle, who had bought the T-shirt in nearby Avignon and given it to Jihad, said the most troubling question from police: Did Bagour induce labor three years ago, so Jihad would be born on Sept. 11? The answer from both was no.

The prosecutor decided to charge Bagour and her brother with “apology for crime,” which under a 1981 French law carries a penalty of up to five years in prison and a $58,000 fine.

Zeyad Bagour said he had trouble understanding what the fuss was about. The front had the words “I am a bomb” printed on it, but he understood that as the expression “I am a real looker.” As for the back, he said, he just wanted to put down his nephew's name and date of birth.

“I did it on a lark,” he recalled, apologizing for any alarm he might have raised. “It wasn't even meant as a joke.”

At a four-hour trial March 6, Deputy Prosecutor Olivier Couvignou portrayed the T-shirt as a deliberate political message.

The court is expected to deliver its verdict April 10.

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