Why Egypt sentenced two Al Jazeera journalists to death

An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced two Al-Jazeera journalists to death for allegedly providing national security information to Qatar during Mohamed Morsi’s reign as president.

Ahmed Omar/AP/File
An Egyptian court has sentenced six people, including two Al-Jazeera employees, to death for alleged espionage during the rule of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. Morsi, pictured above in a June 21, 2015 file photo, was also sentenced on Saturday to 25 years in prison in the case.

An Egyptian court sentenced six people, including two Al Jazeera journalists, to death on Saturday, accusing them of leaking state secrets to Qatar.

The Egyptian Criminal Court also sentenced former President Mohamed Morsi, who has already been sentenced to death in another case, and two of his aides to 25 years in prison for being members of the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood but were acquitted for espionage, the Associated Press reported. 

The three journalists are not in Egypt, according to Al Jazeera, and were sentenced in absentia: Ibrahim Mohammed Helal, former director of news at Al Jazeera's Arabic channel; former Al Jazeera producer Alaa Omar Mohammed Sablan; and Asma Mohammed al-Khatib, a reporter for the news channel Rasd, CNN reported. 

The others sentenced to death, political activist Ahmed Afifi, flight attendant Mohamed Kilani, and academic Ahmed Ismail, are in Egyptian custody.

Al Jazeera strongly rejected the sentencing in a statement, saying Egypt had launched an attack against freedom of expression. 

"Al Jazeera believes this is an unjust and politicized sentence that is a part of the ruthless campaign against freedom of speech and expression, in order to muzzle the voice of free press," it said.

The Paris press freedom group Reporters without Borders ranked Egypt 159 out of 180 in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index. According to the organization, "the authoritarian regime has used the fraught security situation to crack down on critical journalists in the name of stability and national security." 

Journalists who are critical of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his government are often harassed, fired, or jailed, reports Reporters Without Borders. The government has been imposing "correct" media coverage of armed attacks and bombing, and a law from June 2015 requires media organizations to limit themselves to the government's official version of terrorist attacks. 

This isn't the first time Al Jazeera journalists have run into trouble with Egypt. Last year, three Al Jazeera journalists were freed from prison after 400 days in prison on charges they supported the Muslim Brotherhood, CNN reported. 

Under the nation's protocol in cases of capital punishment, Judge Mohammed Shirin Fahmy's recommendation of the death sentence went to the office of Egypt's Grand Mufti, the nation's top Muslim theological authority, the AP reported. Fahmy had said the six aimed to harm Egypt by passing details of the army's deployment and reports from intelligence agencies to a foreign nation. 

"They are more dangerous than spies, because spies are usually foreigners, but these are, regrettably, Egyptians who betrayed the trust," the judge said, according to AP. "No ideology can ever justify the betrayal of one's country."

Mostefa Souag, acting director general of Al Jazeera Media Network, called the ruling "illogical" and "legally baseless." He said the sentence showed the failure of the justice system in Egypt, and showed the Egyptian legal system was no longer an independent entity but rather a puppet arm for the executive authorities.  

Al Jazeera called on the international community to "show solidarity with the journalists who received unjust sentences that outrageously oppose all international and regional laws and conventions that clearly support the protection of journalists and incriminate all forms of assault against them." 

Amnesty International, the human rights advocacy group, called the charges against the journalists "ludicrous," according to CNN. 

"Egypt's broken and utterly corrupted justice system is now little more than a handy tool for the authorities' repression of any vestiges of opposition or criticism," it said.

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