March 11, 2015 / 10:17 AM / 2 years ago

Swedish artist on al Qaeda's hit list has no regrets

Swedish artist Lars Vilks speaks during an interview with Reuters at a hidden location in southern Sweden March 10, 2015.Johan Ahlander

MALMO, Sweden (Reuters) - His public appearances are cancelled, friends shy away and he is confined to a safehouse but Swedish artist Lars Vilks, twice targeted by Islamist assasins, says he has no regrets even though he feels that those who wish him dead are winning.

The 68-year-old sparked outrage among Muslims in 2007 with a drawing portraying the Prophet Mohammad as a dog. That led an al Qaeda-linked Iraqi group to place a $100,000 bounty on his head.

In February, he went into hiding after a radicalised Dane shot dead two people in Copenhagen at a free-speech event Vilks attended and at a synagogue.

Since then, lectures in Sweden have been cancelled, some of his friends have stopped seeing him, and neighbours have asked his landlord to evict him from his home even though the nearest one is a mile away.

"Artistic life, when you are examining and researching today's world, is risky business," he told Reuters at a secure location in central Malmo, flanked by three bodyguards.

"I am hardened now and have grown into a situation that has escalated gradually."

Vilks said he hopes the situation will calm down in coming months but is resigned to living under threat for the rest of his life. He said people like himself, novelist Salman Rushdie and cartoonist Kurt Westergaard are forever in al Qaeda's "hall of fame".

"These people are not in a hurry. It is very seldom that anyone slips away and is forgotten."

Vilks has been given round-the-clock police protection and several would-be killers have been put in prison, including one called Jihad Jane. His attackers, he said, have already had great success in intimidating those around him.

"Many are now very worried. There are those who are very reluctant to be seen or to socialise with me. Fear is the true ally of terrorism," he said.

He has spent the last few weeks moving from one safe house to another. He has been told he cannot go back to his home for the foreseeable future.

His daily activity is now dictated by his security team and he exercises indoors instead of taking walks outside.

"Everything becomes very limited. It's a hassle if you get seen because then you have to move straight away," Vilks said.

Such restrictions have forced him to develop his painting, which he relies on to support himself, and he sells nearly everything he paints, he said. Prints of his Mohammad dog painting sell for $215 each.

Most of all he misses being out in the countryside. He can no longer visit a driftwood installation he has been building for decades on a shore close to his home.

"Mountains, water, fresh wind and trees, that sort of freedom feels very distant now", he said.

(This version of the story was corrected to clarify two people were shot dead at separate incidents in Copenhagen)

Editing by Alistair Scrutton and Louise Ireland

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