Azerbaijani judge orders change of venue in trial of journalists over Islam article

Baku, Azerbaijan - A judge ordered a change of venue Monday in the trial of two Azerbaijani journalists accused of inciting religious hatred with an article that criticized Islam, postponing its start for the second time.

As Monday's opening session of the trial of reporter Rafiq Tagi and editor Samir Huseinov began at a district court in Baku, judge Mahammadali Zulfugarov granted a prosecution request and ruled that they should be tried in the district where their newspaper's office is located, rather than where they live.

It was not immediately clear when the trial would get under way .

It had been expected to start in January, but the court postponed it to give prosecutors more time to investigate, keeping the defendants in custody. If convicted, Tagi and Huseinov could face three to five years in prison.

The case has touched a nerve in Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim country with a secular government that has little tolerance for independent media.

Tagi's November article in the small newspaper Senet asserted that Islam has suffocated people, pulled them away from freedom and hindered humanity's development, and said that the Prophet Muhammad created problems for Eastern countries.

The article sparked angry protests — including calls for Tagi's death — in a village near Baku whose conservative Muslim community has clashed with the authoritarian, secular government. The case has also deepened concerns about freedom of speech and foreign influence in the oil-rich former Soviet republic.

"Arresting journalists for freely expressing their ideas is unacceptable," said Vagif Bayatli Onar, one of several well-known poets who attended the hearings to show support for the defendants.

The government of President Ilham Aliev, who took over from his father in a 2003 election denounced by opponents as a sham, has faced persistent criticism over the heavy-handed treatment of independent media.

Tagi told the court, "Everything that's happening is wrong." Huseinov declared that he was rejecting his Azerbaijani citizenship in protest at the prosecution.

The defendants' lawyer, Isakhan Asurov, said he saw no hidden motive for the venue change but stressed that the issue should have been resolved earlier.

Asurov also said his clients' rights were violated when they were brought into the courtroom "in handcuffs, like criminals," and when a guard listened in on his discussions with them earlier. He said the case against his clients "has no future because it violates" the right to free speech.

The article reportedly sparked protests in neighboring Iran, and it has compounded concerns in Azerbaijan about the influence of Iran, which has a large ethnic Azeri minority. The trial is also expected to be closely watched in the West, which is interested in Azerbaijan because of its oil riches and its strategic position between Iran and Russia.