BAKU (Reuters)–A group of Azerbaijani terrorists were sentenced to between two and 18 years in jail on Thursday for plotting to attack the U.S. and British embassies in Azerbaijan.
The plot, intercepted by security forces in October 2007, underlined the threat posed by radical Islamists in the tightly-controlled oil-producing former Soviet republic.
Authorities said the group of 20 were followers of the strict Wahhabi branch of Sunni Islam. They include a former army officer who was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
The defendants shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest) when the judge sentenced them, the Azeri APA news agency reported.
They were found guilty of establishing illegal military groups, attacking a petrol station, and plotting attacks on the U.S. and British embassies.
Azerbaijan sells oil and gas to the West from reserves in the Caspian Sea, much of the oil flowing through a BP-led (BP.L: Quote, Profile, Research) pipeline.
Most of Azerbaijan’s 8.3 million people are Shi’ite Muslims, like the population of neighboring Iran, but the government under President Ilham Aliyev is strictly secular and close to Washington.
The majority of Azeris take a relaxed attitude towards religion, but officials say the influence of Islam is growing.
In December 2007, 15 members of an Islamist group were sentenced to long prison terms for a coup plot. Authorities said they had links to Iranian security services.
Separately, two Lebanese and four Azeris are being tried on charges of plotting to attack the Israeli embassy in Baku.
Critics of Aliyev, son of the late long-serving leader Heydar Aliyev, say his administration’s heavy-handed methods and intolerance of dissent are driving young men towards radical Islam.