STOCKHOLM (AP) – Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who had lived under police protection since his 2007 sketch of the Prophet Muhammad with a dog’s body received death threats, has died in a traffic accident, police said on Monday. He was 75 years old.
Vilks and two plainclothes police bodyguards were killed in a head-on collision with a truck on Sunday afternoon, said Carina Persson, police chief for southern Sweden. All three died instantly. The driver of the truck was taken to hospital with serious injuries.
She said the police car, which had left Stockholm and was heading south, veered into the path of the truck and both vehicles caught fire. The accident happened near Markaryd, some 108 kilometers (67 miles) northeast of Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city.
“There is nothing else at this time that indicates it was anything other than a traffic accident,” Persson said at a press conference.
“The investigative work is expected to take a relatively long time,” said Sweden’s top police chief Anders Thornberg.
Since 2010, Vilks had been forced to live under police protection “due to the fact that he made use of his freedom of expression and artistic freedom”, Swedish Minister of Culture Amanda Lind said, calling her death ” extremely tragic traffic accident “.
Vilks was largely unknown outside of Sweden until 2007, when he drew a sketch of Muhammad with a dog’s body. Dogs are considered unclean by conservative Muslims, and Islamic law generally opposes any portrayal of the prophet, even favorable, lest it lead to idolatry.
Al-Qaida put a price on Vilks’ head. In 2010, two men tried to burn down his house in southern Sweden. In 2014, a Pennsylvania woman pleaded guilty to a plot to kill him.
In 2015, Vilks attended a free speech seminar in Copenhagen, Denmark, which was attacked by a sniper who killed a Danish director and injured three police officers. Vilks, who is generally believed to be the intended target, was taken away unharmed by bodyguards. The gunman then killed a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue and injured two other policemen before being killed in a shootout with police.
Police said at the time that they were unsure why the car had entered the wrong lane, but were investigating whether a tire may have exploded. The car carrying Vilks had puncture-proof tires, police said. However, the remains of exploded tires were reportedly found on the road.
Born in 1946 in Helsingborg in southern Sweden, Vilks worked as an artist for almost four decades and rose to fame for challenging the limits of art through several controversial works.
His most famous pieces included “Nimis” – a driftwood sculpture built without permission in the Kullaberg nature reserve in Sweden – as well as three drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, including one that showed the Prophet as a dog.
Vilks originally planned to display the design at an exhibition at a Swedish cultural heritage center, but the design was removed after the center raised concerns about safety.
It went largely unnoticed until a Swedish newspaper printed the cartoon with an editorial defending free speech.
Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.