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"It was announced during sentencing that ... the article contained ideas charged with hatred for Islam and the Prophet Mohammad and these actions of the paper were directed towards inciting religious hatred and enmity," the court's spokesman said after the guilty verdict was announced.
 
The newspaper article provoked widespread anger in Azerbaijan, a secular but predominantly Shia Muslim country, and elsewhere in the region when it was first published on November 9, 2006.

Soon after the article appeared, an Iranian cleric - angered by its depiction of Islam as a violent religion - offered his house to anyone who killed the journalists, Reuters reported on Friday.

Freedom of speech

The two journalists - both of whom are Muslims - have said that the trial in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, was an attack on their right to freedom of speech.

"A person can't be condemned for their opinions," Sadagatogli told the court.

Isakhan Ashurov, the lawyer for the two Azeri journalists, said the trial had violated articles of the European Convention on Human Rights which protect freedom of expression.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media watchdog, criticised the court's decision.

"While it is understandable that some members of the public may have been shocked by the article's content and tone, the imposition of prison sentences and fatwas is outrageous," the organisation said in a statement posted on its website.

"It should be remembered that these are not criminals but two journalists who were just expressing their views."

At the court's final session in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, fighting broke out in the courtroom as Muslims who were watching the proceedings tried to kill the two journalists, the AFP newsagency reported.

Iranian fatwa

External link:

Ayatollah Lankarani's fatwa:

'Death ruling for the insulters of Holy Prophet (pbuh) in Senat newspaper'

(Al Jazeera is not responsible for the content of external websites)

Last November, Grand Ayatollah Sheikh Muhammad Fazel Lankarani, a senior Shia scholar from Tabriz, a mainly Azeri city in northern Iran, ruled that the two journalists should be killed for writing and publishing the article.

"Such a person is an apostate in view of his confessions, if he is a Muslim," Lankarani ruled in a fatwa - or religious ruling - published on his website.

"If he had been an unbeliever (Kafir), he is considered as someone who has insulted the Prophet and in any case, given his confessions, it is necessary for every individual who has an access to him to kill him.

"The person in charge of the said newspaper, who published such thoughts and beliefs consciously and knowingly, should be dealt with in the same manner. We pray to Almighty Allah to grant Muslims and Islam protection from the evils of their enemies."

Ashurov, the journalists' lawyer, has previously said that he would appeal if the men were convicted.