Egypt finalizes death ruling for Al Jazeera journalists tried in abstentia

An Egyptian court finalized a ruling on Saturday in an espionage case that sentenced six people to death, including three journalists tried in absentia. The country’s former president, Mohammed Morsi, was also given life in prison in the same case.

The defendants were convicted of leaking documents to Qatari intelligence that exposed information about Egypt’s armed forces and its weapons.

Those sentenced to death Saturday include two journalists from Al Jazeera and one from the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Rassd News Network, who were all in absentia, according to Al Jazeera. However, the other three — political activist Ahmed Afifi, flight attendant Mohamed Kilani, and academic Ahmed Ismail — are in custody.

Ibrahim Helal, former director of news at Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel and one of the people sentenced to death in absentia, told Al Jazeera that the entire judicial process was fabricated.

“This is a political case,” he said. “They want to threaten all journalists inside and outside of Egypt.”

Helal was sentenced with Alaa Sablan, who was an Al Jazeera reporter until last year.

Morsi had already been sentenced to death for plotting jail breaks during the height of an uprising against former president Hosni Mubarak. He has also been sentenced to life for spying on behalf of Palestinian group Hamas and 20 years for his connection to past protests.

After finishing the bureaucratic step of seeking advice from Egypt’s grand mufti, the religious interpreter of Islamic law, the Cairo court on Saturday reaffirmed the initial verdict it made on May 7.

Morsi was Egypt’s first democratically elected president in 2012. Following mass protests against Morsi’s rule, then-army chief Abdel Fattah el-Sissi overthrew him and became the presidential incumbent in 2014. El-Sissi has since cracked down on opponents of his regime, including the Muslim Brotherhood, which was once Egypt’s most-organized political group and of which Morsi is a member.

Relations between Qatar and Egypt have been cool since Morsi, who was supported by Qatar, was ousted, according to Reuters.

Al Jazeera says it has been consistently targeted by Egyptian authorities since the news channel began covering anti-government protests in 2011.

“By the end of 2013, five Al Jazeera staff were behind bars, imprisoned simply for the sole reason of being journalists,” Al Jazeera said. “Al Jazeera continues to reject any accusations that it has in any way compromised its journalistic integrity.”