Police have said they have found no evidence so far of criminal intent in a car crash that killed two police bodyguards and the Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, best known for his 2007 portrayal of the prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog.
"We want to completely exclude any external act targeting the car in which Lars Vilks found himself," the head of the Swedish southern regional investigation unit, Stefan Sinteus, told reporters on Monday. "There is nothing to indicate that, but we want to be certain so we can rule it out."
Vilks (75), who lived under near-continuous police protection following death threats and attacks, died with the two officers on Sunday after their car swerved and crashed through a metal road barrier, colliding with an oncoming truck near Markaryd, 95km north-east of Malmö, Sweden's third largest city.
Local media said the car Vilks was in was travelling at high speed. One witness told the Aftonbladet newspaper that the driver “seemed to lose control”. The truck did not have time to swerve and the two vehicles collided at “incredible speed”, he told the newspaper.
Both vehicles caught fire and all three passengers in the car, which Mr Sinteus said may have suffered a tyre blowout, died at the scene on Sweden’s main E4 motorway. The truck driver was injured and taken to hospital where he was questioned by police.
Sweden's national police chief, Anders Thornberg, said the full outcome of the investigation could take "a relatively long time", while the culture minister Amanda Lind called it "an extremely tragic traffic accident".
The publication of Vilks’s drawings in a Swedish regional newspaper, to illustrate an editorial defending free speech, came a year after widespread Muslim outrage at the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten’s publication of 12 cartoons of the prophet. Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the prophet, even favourable, and dogs are considered unclean by conservative Muslims.
The Swedish publication drew protests from Afghanistan, Egypt, Jordan and Pakistan, as well as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC), which called for "punitive actions" against Vilks. The then prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt, met ambassadors from 22 Muslim countries to try to defuse the situation.
The Islamist terrorist group al-Qaeda subsequently placed a $100,000 bounty on the artist's head, prompting a failed 2009 assassination plot by Islamist sympathisers in the US and Ireland. In May 2010 Vilks was assaulted while giving a lecture on free speech at Uppsala University, and the same year his house was firebombed.
Five years later, Vilks attended a free speech and blasphemy debate in Copenhagen organised in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. The event was attacked by a man with a semi-automatic rifle who killed a 55-year-old Danish film director and a guard at the Copenhagen synagogue, before Danish police shot him dead.
Vilks, who had repeatedly said the cartoons were not intended to provoke Muslims but to challenge political correctness in the art world, was widely assumed to be the intended target.
While the Muhammad drawing is what Vilks was best known for internationally, he was primarily a sculptor. His most significant work is widely considered to be a driftwood sculpture, Nimis, built illegally at a national park, which became the subject of a lengthy legal dispute with local authorities. – Guardian/Agencies