Six people, including two Al Jazeera journalists, were handed preliminary death sentences on Saturday on charges of leaking national security secrets to Qatar.
Al Jazeera journalists Ibrahim Helal, the Egyptian former news director of Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel, and Alaa Sablan, a Jordanian journalist with the network, were tried in absentia. Asmaa al-Khatib, a reporter with the Brotherhood-affiliated Rassd news website, was also sentenced to death in absentia.
Giza Criminal Court adjourned the trial to June 18, while Egypt’s grand mufti reviews the sentences and provides his non-legally binding opinion, in accordance with Egyptian law. Final sentences for the other five defendants in the case, including former President Mohamed Morsi, will be issued when the court reconvenes in June.
All 11 defendants in the case have been accused of jeopardizing Egypt’s national security by leaking state secrets to Qatar during Morsi’s presidency.
Following the announcement of the verdict, Helal stated to Al Jazeera that the verdict was part of a wider campaign against press freedom and that there were several inconsistencies in the case.
The network released a statement on Saturday saying that they received the verdict with “shock, agitation and condemnation.”
“The ruling is unprecedented in the history of journalism in the world; it represents a stab in the back of the profession and freedom of expression worldwide,” Al Jazeera stated. “The global and Arab journalistic organization and the international community should not stand silent in the face of the manipulation by [the Egyptian government] of a well-established state institution, namely the judiciary, to intimidate free journalism and threaten journalists’ lives rather than enforcing justice.”
Egypt’s treatment of the press has been heavily criticized locally and internationally. In 2015, the Committee to Protect Journalists stated that Egypt was second only to China in the number of journalists it imprisoned.
This month, security forces stormed the Journalists Syndicate in order to arrest two journalists who were accused of disseminating false information and inciting protests.
In response, journalists staged an ongoing sit-in at the syndicate and released a series of the demands, including the removal of the interior minister and an apology from the presidency.
Three Al Jazeera journalists, Mohamed Fahmy, Baher Mohamed and Peter Greste, were previously sentenced to three years in prison on charges of aiding a terrorist organization and disseminating false information. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi later pardoned Fahmy and Mohamed, while Greste was deported, after spending over a year in detention.
Their detention was met with international condemnation, with Amnesty International calling the verdict, “an affront to justice that sounds the death knell for freedom of expression in Egypt.”