Bulgaria radical Islam trial stumbles over expertise row

A Bulgarian trial against 13 Muslim religious leaders accused of radical preachings lacks "objectivity", defence lawyers said Monday, as they attacked testifying experts' knowledge of Islam and the Arabic language.

"The objectivity requirement is brutally violated. We debate a trial against Muslim preachers in the absence of a single theologist with knowledge of Islam," defence lawyer Vasil Vasilev told the court in the southern town of Pazardzhik.

The 12 men and one woman -- imams, mufti islamic scholars and teachers -- were charged last June with preaching radical anti-democratic ideology based on hardline Salafist teachings during prayers at mosques, lectures, sermons and cafe meetings in the southern regions of Smolyan, Blagoevgrad and Pazardzhik between March 2008 and October 2010.

All defendants have pleaded not guilty. Their trial opened in September.

In Monday's session, the court heard several experts assess the Muslim literature seized by police in the defendants' homes.

Historian Agor Garabedyan testified that the confiscated books called for "a war against the unbelievers" and "rejected the modern education system". He qualified as "propaganda" the accused's disciples' habits of wearing long beards or niqabs, full face veils, for the women.

But Garabedyan came under fire from the defence for giving his opinion on books he could not have read as he did not know Arabic.

Another expert, Klara Stamenova, a university specialist on Christianity, said the books "contained radical ideas" including "calls for violence and terrorism".

"The possession and reading of books is not a count in the penal code," Vasilev countered, accusing Stamenova of "lacking objectivity".

Minority and human rights experts on Monday labelled the trial a farce.

"It's a shame. The sole serious accusations come from the testimonies of anonymous witnesses," Antonina Zhelyazkova, head of a Sofia-based institute for minority studies, added.

Many of the witnesses of the prosecution failed to confirm their pre-trial testimony against the 13 imams in court.

"This trial's main effect is to increase mistrust between Christians and Muslims and feed nationalist movements," Yuliana Metodieva of the Bulgarian branch of the human rights Helsinki Committee said.

About a dozen supporters of the nationalist VMRO party gathered outside the court on Monday, many of them mocking Muslim women by wearing niqabs and carrying signs reading "A bomb can be hidden underneath".

Previous hearings of the trial were also marred by nationalist demos.

Bulgaria, whose population of 7.4 million is 80-percent Christian Orthodox, also has the highest percentage of native Muslims in the European Union, at about 13 percent.