BAKU, Dec 3 (Reuters) - Four foreign-trained Islamists were
sentenced to up to 14 years in jail in Azerbaijan on Monday for
plotting "terrorist attacks" on the eve of this year's
Eurovision song contest in Baku, the latest crackdown on
militancy in the oil-rich state.
After 70 years of Soviet-rule, most Azeris have a relaxed
attitude towards religion, but Azerbaijan, a NATO ally bordering
Iran on the Caspian Sea, says it is combating increasing
Islamist extremism with ties to Tehran.
A court official who declined to be named told Reuters the
four were sentenced to between 12 and 14 years in jail for
crimes including treason, plotting terrorist attacks, arms
smuggling and having links with Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
Security forces killed the group's alleged leader in an
operation in April and the other members of the group were
arrested a month before Baku hosted Eurovision in May.
The Security Ministry said those arrested had been trained
in Iran, Syria, Pakistan, and some had fought NATO troops in
Afghanistan. As is usual in Azerbaijan, the court proceedings
were closed to the public.
Last year, Azerbaijan jailed 17 members of another group it
said was linked to al Qaeda, sentencing them to between five
years and life in jail.
Earlier this year, security forces arrested several Azeris
and Iranians on suspicion of spying for Iran, plotting to attack
Western targets and smuggling arms from Iran into Azerbaijan.
Most of Azerbaijan's 9 million people are Shi'ite Muslims,
like the vast majority of Iranians. Some 15 percent of the
roughly 78-million population of Iran are also ethnic Azeris.
But the government of the Republic of Azerbaijan under
President Ilham Aliyev is strictly secular. Western governments
and human rights groups accuse Aliyev, who succeeded his father
in 2003, of rigging elections and of clamping down on dissent.
Iran and Azerbaijan became embroiled in a diplomatic spat
ahead of the Eurovision finals which were condemned by Iranian
clerics and lawmakers who referred to a "gay parade".
Iran was angered by subsequent anti-Iranian protests in
Baku, where demonstrators carried pictures of President Mahmoud
Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and
banners that read "Azerbaijan does not need
Sandwiched between Iran, Russia and Turkey, Azerbaijan sells
oil and gas to the West from reserves in the Caspian Sea.
(Reporting by Lada Evgrashina; Writing by Margarita Antidze;
Editing by Jon Hemming)