2 Journalists Go on Trial in Azerbaijan

Baku, Azerbaijan - Two Azerbaijani journalists accused of inciting religious hatred with an article that criticized Islam went on trial Monday, both accusing authorities of waging a politically motivated prosecution.

The case against reporter Rafiq Tagi and editor Samir Huseinov has touched a nerve in Azerbaijan, a mostly Muslim, ex-Soviet republic with a government that has little tolerance for independent media.

Tagi's November article in the small newspaper Senet, edited by Huseinov, asserted that Islam has suffocated people, pulled them away from freedom and hindered humanity's development, and said 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 government. The case has also deepened concerns about freedom of speech in the oil-rich country.

Tagi, who was brought into the court in handcuffs, said he committed no crime.

"My article - this was purely artistic, a literary discussion and for words one must only answer with words. It is illegal to imprison someone for their convictions," he told the court.

Huseinov told the court his constitutional rights had been violated and that authorities were trying to portray him as not being Muslim.

If convicted, Tagi and Huseinov could face three to five years in prison.

The trial has been postponed twice - once after prosecutors asked for more time to investigate and a second time earlier this month after the judge granted a prosecution request to try the pair in the district where their newspaper's office is located, rather than where they live.

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.

The trial was expected to be closely watched in the West, which is interested in Azerbaijan because of its vast oil and gas wealth and its strategic position between Iran and Russia.