BAKU, Oct 12 (Reuters) Human rights group Amnesty International has made a direct appeal to the Azeri government to release two journalists imprisoned for writing a story critical of Islam.
Samir Sadagatoglu and Rafik Tagi, from the weekly Senet newspaper, wrote a story on November 1 2006 which compared Islam unfavourably to Christianity. In May a court sentenced them to four and three years in prison.
''Amnesty International is calling on the government of Azerbaijan to release immediately and unconditionally two prisoners of conscience, arrested for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression,'' London-based Amnesty said in a statement.
Azerbaijan is a Muslim but secular country on the western coast of the Caspian Sea, from which it extracts oil and pumps it to Europe.
Last month the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, Thomas Hammarberg, also called for the release of the two reporters and the US-based Committee to Protest Journalists rated Azerbaijan as amongst the ten worst countries for press freedom.
Amnesty said that while journalists must have true freedom of expression, they must also be sensitive to the population's views.
Immediately after the journalists' article, residents in one area of the country protested. Iran's religious leader issued a fatwa calling for their deaths, which Azerbaijan rejected.
On Wednesday, another imprisoned Azeri journalist, Einulla Fatulayev, went on trial for terrorism and stirring race hatred.
Fatulayev is already serving a two and a half year sentence for defaming the Azeri army, which he denies, and could land another twenty years in jail if convicted on the new charges.
The Azeri authorities have closed down opposition newspapers and television stations for occupying buildings it says are a safety hazard and has also jailed journalists for defamation.
REUTERS PD HT1415