Al Jazeera has strongly condemned the death sentence for espionage against two of the network’s journalists by an Egyptian court, in what human rights groups have dismissed as a politicised case and a sham trial.
The court on Saturday confirmed the death sentence of six people, including Ibrahim Helal, former director of news at Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel, for allegedly passing state secrets to Qatar.
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Helal is not in Egypt and was tried in absentia.
When sentences recommended, CPJ said Egypt hostility to independent journalism no secret, but death sentence new low https://t.co/Jw6ZGHzxTh
— Committee to Protect Journalists (@pressfreedom) June 18, 2016
Alaa Sablan, who was an Al Jazeera employee until last year, and Asmaa Alkhatib, a journalist with the pro-Muslim Brotherhood Rassd News Network, were also sentenced to death in absentia.
Mohamed Morsi, the deposed Egyptian president who was the case’s leading defendant, and two of his aides were sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Morsi and his secretary, Amin el-Sirafy, each received an additional 15-year sentence for a lesser crime. Sirafy’s daughter, Karima, was also sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Of the case’s 11 defendants, seven, including Morsi, are in custody. All of Saturday’s verdicts can be appealed against.
In a statement, Doha-based Al Jazeera Media Network said it “entirely” rejected the verdict.
“Al Jazeera believes this is an unjust and politicised 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.
“Al Jazeera finds the sentence incriminating to the profession of journalism which all international laws and legislation seek to protect, and to all journalists who should be enabled to report with objectivity, professionalism, and integrity.”
Dr Mostefa Souag, acting director general of Al Jazeera Media Network, said the sentence was “an entire failure for the justice and court system in Egypt, a country classified as one of the most dangerous places for journalists to work in.
“This sentence is only one of many politicised sentences that target Al Jazeera and its employees. They are illogical convictions and legally baseless. Al Jazeera strongly denounces targeting its journalists and stands by the other journalists who have also been sentenced.”
Speaking after Saturday’s decision, Helal said he was “angered” by the verdict and that the entire judicial process was “fabricated”.
“This is a political case. It’s a message in order to drag some support by Qatar – they want Qatar to come
and support them,” he said.
“It’s a message to threaten all journalists inside and outside Egypt. It’s a message to Al Jazeera, that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the revolution in the 25th of January 2011 is not good.
“So they punish Al Jazeera through me, they punish all journalists through me and this sentence.”
The verdicts have been also condemned by prominent freedom of expression groups and human rights organisations.
Amnesty International, the UK-based human-rights organisation, called for the death sentences to be thrown out with immediate effect and “for the ludicrous charges against the journalists to be dropped.
“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”.
Steven Ellis, the director of advocacy and communications at the Vienna-based 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.”
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 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, and that it was collaborating with Morsi’s elected government.
Morsi, who was backed by the Muslim Brotherhood, 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 in Egypt, has dismissed the sentences and other harsh verdicts as politically motivated.
The Egyptian government has repeatedly said that the country’s courts operate independently.