BAKU (Reuters) - An Azerbaijan court sentenced three members of a group it said was linked to al Qaeda to life in prison and 26 others to shorter jail terms after convicting them of plotting attacks on President Ilham Aliyev and other targets last year.
The 29 defendants were arrested in April 2012, a month before the capital Baku hosted the Eurovision Song Contest. They were convicted of plotting attacks on Aliyev and targets including police, hotels and government buildings.
The secular government has said it is determined to stem what it sees as a strong threat from Islamist militants. Critics say the threat is overstated as a way of tightening control.
The Security Ministry said at the time that members of the group had been trained in countries including Iran, Syria and Pakistan, and that some had fought against NATO troops in Afghanistan.
It said the group's alleged leader, identified as Azeri citizen Vugar Padarov, was killed when he resisted arrest.
Most of Azerbaijan's 9 million people are Shi'ite Muslim, but the government is secular and the former Soviet republic has close ties with both the United States and Russia.
Positioned between Iran, Russia and Turkey, Azerbaijan sells oil and gas to the West from reserves in the Caspian Sea.
In 2011 it jailed 17 members of another group it said was linked to al Qaeda to jail terms of between five years and life.
(Corrects first paragraph to show arrests were last year, not earlier this year)
(Reporting by Nailia Bagirova; Writing by Margarita Antidze; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)