As It Happens

Charges laid 25 years after Norwegian publisher of The Satanic Verses was shot

William Nygaard was shot three times on Oct. 11, 1993, and left for dead. Now police have pressed charges two days before the statue of limitations was set to run out in the case.

Despite the attempt on his life, William Nygaard says he doesn't regret publishing the controversial novel

Indian-born British author Salman Rushdie spent several years in hiding after Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against him in 1986 over his novel The Satanic Verses. (Shaun Curry/AFP/Getty Images)

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When William Nygaard was shot in a quiet Olso suburb 25 years ago, he thought it was an electric shock.

The publisher of the Norwegian edition of Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses was shot three times on Oct. 11, 1993, and left for dead. 

He survived and recovered from his wounds. Police at the time played down any possible connection between the shooting and the book. For more than two decades, nobody was charged for the crime.

That all changed on Tuesday, when Norwegian police announced they have pressed charges in the Nygaard shooting, just two days before the statute of limitations was set to expire in the case.

"I feel safe that this is at least a serious try and a serious will to come one step forward," Nygaard, 75, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "The political situation is very different right now."

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But there are still more questions than answers, as police haven't said how many people they've charged, who they are, where they're from or even what charges they face. 

Gunshots felt like electric shocks 

Nygaard, a former CEO of the Aschehoug publishing house, said he remembers the shooting like it was yesterday.

It was early in the morning and he had just returned home from a book fare in Frankfurt when he found the front tire of his car slashed and the security alarm going off. 

He disabled the alarm and was waiting by his car for a cab when the first bullet struck.

"And all of a sudden an enormous kind of electrical shock I felt," he said.

"After a second or something like that, the second electrical shock. That was the second shot. ... And then I really screamed all of a sudden as much as I could, as a kind of reflex probably."

Protesters chant slogans to condemn Britain's knighting of Rushdie on June 22, 2007, in Islamabad, Pakistan. (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

He started scrambling his way toward a nearby hill, he said, when the third shot strike him and left him unable to move.

But still he cried out.

"And luckily enough, I was heard by the neighbours," he said. 

It wasn't until he woke up in hospital that he realized those "shocks" he felt were, in fact, bullets. 

A string of violence 

Police at the time treated the shooting as a crime, but not an assassination attempt related to the novel. 

This, despite a slew of violence surrounding Rushdie's book, a critically lauded work of magical realism that was inspired, in part, by the life of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. 

"Twenty five years ago, I honestly don't think that [Norwegian police] quite understood the circumstances," Nyygard said.

"I think it is a combination between lack of knowledge, no one died but survived, political uncertainly and absolutely fear of being any kind of racism as the left saw it at the time. All this comes together and made the police somehow paralyzed."

A man with glasses and a bald spot on top of his head and a white, short beard, holds a book up in his left hand. The book has an orange border and the title "The Satanic Verses Salman Rushdie."
Rushdie poses with a copy of his controversial novel. (Chris Pizzello/Reuters)

The Satanic Verses sparked widespread protests and attacks on bookstores. 

In 1989, a fatwa was issued against Rushdie by Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini, who called on Muslims to execute the writer for what was deemed his blasphemous depiction of the Prophet.

Rushdie went into hiding for nine years, under the constant protection of Scotland Yard's Special Branch. 

In 1991, the Japanese translator of the book, Hitoshi Igarashi, was stabbed to death in Tokyo, and the Italian translator, Ettore Caprioli was also stabbed, but survived. 

The Iranian leadership softened its position on the book in 1998, allowing Rushdie to walk freely in public once more.

He continues to face widespread criticism and protests when he travels the world. 

Reopening the case

Nygaard's case was reopened in 2010 following the publication of Who Shot William Nygaard? by journalist Odd Isungset.

In the book, Isungset outlines details of the case and the problems that beset the original investigation. Isungset points fingers at a suspect who bought a one-way ticket to Iran in cash the day after the attack.

"This is a really important case — the only terror attack on Norwegian soil since World War II," Isungset told the Guardian newspaper at the time.

Kashmiri protesters burn an effigy of Rushdie during a protest in Srinagar on June 21, 2007. (Fayaz Kabli/Reuters)

In a press release announcing the new charges, Norweigian police explicitly linked the attack with the novel. 

"The investigation yields no evidence of any other motive for the attempted killing than the publication of The Satanic Verses in April 1989," reads the statement, translated from Norwegian. 

Rushdie lauded the charges in a statement provided to the New York Times through his agent.

"This is good news, and one can hope that this 25-year-old case will now finally advance," he said.

But he also questioned "why the names and nationalities of the indicted persons have been withheld."

No regrets 

Nygaard says that despite what happened to him, he has never lived in fear. 

"I am a free man," he said.

He is now the chairman of the Norwegian chapter of PEN, an international writers' organization that advocates freedom of expression.

He has no regrets about publishing the book, he said, and would do it again today. 

"As a publisher, that is part of the job," he said. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview with William Nygaard produced by Kevin Robertson.