An Egyptian court confirmed the death sentences of six people including two Al-Jazeera journalists accused of leaking state secrets to Qatar.
During the final ruling in the trial of 11 people accused of espionage, including toppled president Mohamed Morsi and Al Jazeera journalists, the court on Saturday sentenced the former president to an additional 15 years behind bars.
The court on Saturday confirmed a ruling from May 7, when six of the defendants were sentenced to death.
After that initial verdict, the Cairo court had to seek the advice of Egypt’s Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, the highest religious leader in the country, to be able to finalise the verdicts.
Egyptian law requires the mufti to sign off on death sentences. His opinion is not binding but usually respected by courts.
Morsi was sentenced to 15 years in prison along with other defendants.
Those sentenced to death include Ibrahim Helal, former director of news at Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel. He is not in Egypt and was tried in absentia.
Helal was accused of passing state secrets to Qatar in what human rights groups have dismissed as a politicised case and a sham trial.
Alaa Sablan, who was an Al Jazeera employee until last year, as well as Asmaa Alkhatib, a journalist with the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Rassd News Network, were also sentenced to death in absentia.
The others sentenced to death – political activist Ahmed Afifi, flight attendant Mohamed Kilani, and academic Ahmed Ismail – are in state custody.
The verdicts can be appealed in Egypt’s Court of Cassation.
Steven Ellis, the director of advocacy and communications at International Press Institute told Al Jazeera that he was “disappointed” with the verdict but not entirely surprised “given the climate towards press freedom in Egypt”.
“We are extremely disappointed to hear this verdict and hope that Interpol and foreign governments, in the event that a warrant for extradition is issued, do not honour those warrants because this was a sham case that was politically motivated. There was extremely thin if any evidence tying these journalists to the alleged crimes that happened.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists has listed Egypt among the top jailers of journalists, and one of the most dangerous places to report from.
Since Al Jazeera began reporting on the anti-government protests that erupted in January 2011, the network has found itself being consistently and deliberately targeted by the Egyptian authorities.
Its offices were forced to close and several of its journalists were briefly detained that year.
In early 2013, one of its studios overlooking Tahrir Square was firebombed as police officers looked on.
Then in July of the same year, just hours after the military removed the country’s first democratically elected president in a coup, soldiers stormed Al Jazeera Arabic’s offices in Cairo during a live broadcast, forcing the channel to go off air.
By the end of 2013, five Al Jazeera staff were behind bars, imprisoned simply for the sole reason of being journalists.
Although an international campaign managed to secure their freedom, there are more than 70 other journalists still in prison.
Al Jazeera continues to reject any accusations that it has in any way compromised its journalistic integrity.
Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi was overthrown by the military in July 2013 after mass protests a year after he took office.
Senior leaders in the Muslim Brotherhood and their followers have been sentenced to death in different cases since military leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Morsi’s government.
The Muslim Brotherhood, which has since been banned, has dismissed the sentences and other harsh verdicts as politically motivated.
The Egyptian government has repeatedly said that the country’s courts operate independently.
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