Azerbaijan court jails four Eurovision Islamist plotters

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

clerics-homosexuals!".

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)

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