The Soviet Supreme Court has sentenced an Azerbaijani to death by firing squad for leading a mob that killed seven people in ethnic riots earlier this year, a witness said Saturday.
The verdict against Akhmed I. Akhmedov from the republic of Azerbaijan was handed down Friday, Kuryun Naganpetyan, a Moscow-based Armenian activist, said. It was the first death penalty issued by Soviet courts growing out of the Feb. 28 riots in the Azerbaijan city of Sumgait.
Soviet officials say 32 people, including 26 Armenians, were killed in the unrest. Armenians have set the toll much higher.
State-run media in Moscow did not immediately report the verdict in the Akhmedov trial, which was closed to Western journalists. Naganpetyan, who has attended the trial daily, reported the court's decision in a telephone interview with the Associated Press.
Naganpetyan said Akhmedov was convicted of using a megaphone to shout to a mob "Kill the Armenians!" and of leading them as they stormed 17 apartments in Sumgait and killed seven people, burning some of them alive.
Armenian newspapers, whose reporters have been allowed into the trial, have said that according to testimony, bands of Azerbaijanis in Sumgait hunted down and killed Armenians and that one man was hurled alive into a bonfire.
One young girl was mutilated with a shovel and burned alive, according to accounts of the Supreme Court trial that have appeared in the Armenian press.
Akhmedov and two co-defendants, Ilgam A. Ismailov and Yavar G. Dzhafarov, went on trial at the Supreme Court on murder and arson charges Oct. 18. the Tass news agency said the three were charged with "organizing and taking a direct part in mass disorders accompanied by pogroms, acts of arson and murders."
The riots in Sumgait were sparked by a campaign by Armenians, who are mostly Christian, to annex the predominantly Armenian region of Nagorno-Karabakh, which has been part of largely Muslim Azerbaijan since 1923.
More than 80 people have been charged with offenses in the anti-Armenian unrest that broke out in Sumgait, an industrial city on the Caspian Sea about 20 miles north of Azerbaijan's capital, Baku.
Naganpetyan said the Supreme Court did not announce when Akhmedov would be executed.
He said the trial of Akhmedov's co-defendants is continuing.
Under the Soviet criminal code, the death penalty can be applied for offenses ranging from murder to war crimes and large-scale economic crimes against the state, such as embezzlement.