TIRANA (Reuters) - An Albanian court sentenced nine defendants, including three Muslim clerics, to jail sentences of up to 18 years on Tuesday for recruiting people to fight in Syria’s civil war.
The sentencing marked the end of a two-year trial that has underlined concerns about radicalization among Muslims in Albania and other Balkan countries and has been closely followed by Tirana’s NATO ally the United States.
A small number of Albanians in the majority-Muslim ex-communist state have in recent years come under the influence of radical preachers, usually foreigners or Albanians who received their training abroad.
The nine defendants refused to stand when Judge Liljana Baku read out their sentence, just as they have done throughout their trial, saying they recognized only the will of Allah.
The three clerics, Bujar Hysa, Genci Balla and Gert Pashja, were found guilty of recruiting people for terrorist purposes, inciting hatred and making public calls for terrorist acts, and were sentenced respectively to 18, 17 and 17 years in a high-security jail.
They had preached in mosques not controlled by the official Muslim Committee and are believed to have recruited most of the 100 or so Albanians estimated to have traveled to Syria, some with their families, to fight alongside militant groups.
The other six defendants were found guilty of the same charges but sentenced to shorter terms in jail.
Cries of “Allahu Akbar” rang out in the chamber when the judge read out the first sentence but quickly fell silent when she threatened to expel them from the courtroom.
“You are prisoners, not them,” one man with a long red beard shouted at police and journalists in the courtroom.
“These American dogs did it,” said defendant Bujar Hysa as he left the iron cage in the courtroom, looking towards a U.S. Embassy official who has been attending the court hearings.
About 60 percent of Albanians are Muslims and traditionally follow a tolerant version of the faith, co-existing peacefully with their Christian neighbors.
The U.S. Embassy in Tirana told its citizens that radical groups had threatened violence if the imams were found guilty.
At some court sessions, Fadil Muslimani, a cook at the mosque who was among the defendants, said the group was loyal to Islamic State and that they hoped jihadists would triumph in Syria and around the world.
“This (trial) is a crusade against Islam. Communism died, democracy will be gone and Islam will triumph,” Muslimani said at a December hearing. On Tuesday he was handed a 12-year jail sentence.
Reporting By Benet Koleka, Editing by Gareth Jones