stockholm – Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who has been under police protection since creating a sketch of the Prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog in 2007, died in a weekend car accident with two police bodyguards, police said on Monday. He was 75 years old.
Southern Sweden Police Chief Carina Persson said Vilks and two plainclothes officers were killed in a head-on accident with a truck on Sunday afternoon. All three died on the spot. The 45-year-old truck driver, who was seriously injured, was taken to the hospital.
Person said the police car, which was being driven by a bodyguard, had left Stockholm and was heading south when it came in the way of the truck. Thereafter both the vehicles caught fire. The accident happened near Markrid, 100 kilometers (60 mi) northeast of Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city.
“For now there is nothing else that indicates it was anything other than a traffic accident,” Persson told a news conference.
Sweden’s top police chief Anders Thornberg said an investigation would take place, but expected it would take “a relatively long time.”
Swedish Culture Minister Amanda Lind called it “an extremely tragic traffic accident”.
FILE – Swedish artist Lars Vilks is seen in a photo taken on January 3, 2012 in Nyhamnslage, Sweden. (Photo Credit: Bjorn Lindgren/AFP via Getty Images)
Vilks was largely unknown outside Sweden until 2007, when he made a sketch of Muhammad with the body of a dog. Dogs are considered unclean by Orthodox Muslims and Islamic law generally opposes any depiction of the Prophet, even favourable, for fear it could lead to idolatry.
Al-Qaeda placed a bounty on Wilkes’ head. In 2010, two men tried to burn down his house in southern Sweden.
Since that time, Wilkes has been forced to remain under police protection, “due to the fact that he exercised his freedom of expression and his artistic freedom,” Lind said Monday.
For years, he received death threats.
In 2014, a Pennsylvania woman pleaded guilty to conspiracy to kill him.
The following year, Wilkes attended a free speech symposium in Copenhagen, Denmark, which was attacked by a lone gunman who killed a Danish film director and injured three police officers.
Vicks, widely believed to be the target of that 2015 attack, was chased away by bodyguards. The gunman later killed a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue and wounded two more officers before being killed in a gunfight with police.
Police said on Monday they did not know why Wilkes’ car went into the wrong lane, but they were investigating whether a tire burst. Police said the car had puncture-proof tyres.
The accident happened on the north-south E4 highway on Sunday afternoon. Senior police officer Stephen Sittus told a news conference that the unmarked police car was plowed through the cable railing separating the north and south lanes.
“We have found tire remnants on E4 from before the crash, and we are looking into the possibility that some sort of tire explosion may have been there,” Situs said.
Citus said the police vehicle weighed 4.5 tons, which may explain how it could move through cable railings. A simple large vehicle weighs less than 2 tons. He said the speed limit at the site was 110 kilometers per hour (68 mph).
There are two investigations going on now. Chief prosecutor Kajsa Sundgren said he had taken over a preliminary investigation into whether “any police officer has committed any offense in connection with the accident.”
He said that the accident may have been caused by someone else, it is being investigated by the police.
“There is a lot of speculation about what might have happened, and I am careful not to contribute to them,” Home Affairs Minister Mikel Damberg told Swedish news agency TT. “I know the police take this very seriously.”
Born in Helsingborg, southern Sweden, in 1946, Vilks worked as an artist for nearly four decades and gained fame for challenging the boundaries of art through a number of controversial works.
His most famous pieces include “Nimis” – a sculpture of driftwood built without permission in Sweden’s Kullberg Nature Reserve – as well as portraits of the prophet Muhammad, which depicted the prophet as a dog.
Vilks initially planned to display the picture in an exhibition at the Swedish Cultural Heritage Centre, but the picture was removed over safety concerns. This went largely unnoticed until a Swedish newspaper printed the picture with an editorial protecting freedom of expression.
Many of his works, including driftwood sculptures and Mohamed paintings showing the head of a Muslim prophet on the body of a dog, are currently on display in Warsaw, Poland. The works are being shown as part of an exhibition curated by a right-wing director that aims to challenge left-wing political correctness.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark contributed to this report.