An Egyptian court sentenced two al-Jazeera journalists to death on Saturday for passing national security-related documents containing state secrets to Qatar. Along with Alaa Omar Mohammed Sablan and Ibrahim Mohammed Helal, four other people also received death sentences as Cairo continues cracking down on Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
The court’s ruling comes immediately after an Egyptian court announced an additional 25-year sentence for former president Mohammed Morsi, who was convicted of leaking documents regarding Egyptian weapons systems to Qatari intelligence.
After Judge Mohamed Shirin Fahmy recommended the death sentence last month, the recommendation went to the Grand Mufti, the highest theological authority in the nation, for endorsement. Speaking on the conviction, Fahmy called the six prosecuted “more dangerous than spies…these are Egyptians who betrayed the trust.” Currently, only three of the six convicted are in state custody. Both Sablan and Helal were tried and sentenced in absentia, as did Asmaa al-Khateib, a reporter for Rasd, a media outlet with suspected ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The verdict has sparked an outcry from al-Jazeera in what the network called “a ruthless campaign against freedom of speech and expression.” Ibrahim Helal, former news director for the station’s Arabic channel, spoke out against his sentencing as well, condemning the act as a “fabrication” and “political case” against Qatar. Relations between Cairo and Doha have soured since the 2013 military coup that overthrew Morsi and a subsequent crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. Qatar, viewing the Muslim Brotherhood as an ally, heavily criticized the military’s coup and provided sanctuary for Brotherhood leaders in Qatar. Cairo maintains al-Jazeera’s coverage is biased in favor of militant Islamic groups, a claim denied by the network.
International human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, also voiced strong opposition to the court’s decision, calling for Judge Fahmy to drop the charges. This is not the first instance of a journalist whose prosecution in Egypt receiving international attention by human rights groups. Security forces arrested and charged al-Jazeera journalists Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed in late 2013 for allegedly supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and airing false news. Their detention sparked widespread condemnation from press freedom groups until their release in 2015.
Egypt’s prosecution of journalism goes beyond targeting al-Jazeera and the Muslim Brotherhood, and includes liberal media outlets as well. A 2016 analysis from Reporters Without Borders ranks Egypt 159th out of 180 countries regarding freedom of the press, while the Committee to Protect Journalists found Egypt to be second only to China on a list of the world’s worst jailers of journalists in 2015.