egypt journalists protest
egypt journalists protestReuters

Two Al Jazeera journalists were among the six people sentenced to death by an Egyptian court on Saturday for allegedly leaking state secrets to Qatar and the Al Jazeera TV network based in Doha during Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's rule.

Al Jazeera reported that the court confirmed a May 7 ruling when six of the 11 defendants were given the death sentence. The ruling by the Cairo court had to be further referred to Grand Mufti Shawqi Allam, Egypt's highest religious leader, for approval, according to the law of Egypt. However, the court is free to reject the opinion of the mufti.

According to Associated Press, top defendant and Egypt's first elected President Morsi and his two associates were given a life sentence of 25 years for being members of the Muslim Brotherhood group, which is now banned. However, they were acquitted of espionage. Morsi's associates – Amin el-Sirafy and his daughter Karima – have each been given an additional 15 years in prison for passing documents related to national security.

Morsi is already facing a death penalty, a life sentence and 20 years in prison in other cases, all of which are under appeal. The Brotherhood was banned in the country and declared a terrorist organisation following Morsi's ouster by the military in 2013. A producer at a TV channel linked to the Brotherhood, Khalid Radwan, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison.

"They are more dangerous than spies, because spies are usually foreigners, but these are, regrettably, Egyptians who betrayed the trust... No ideology can ever justify the betrayal of one's country," Judge Mohammed Shirin Fahmy, who had recommended the death sentence in May, was quoted by AP as saying.

The verdicts can be appealed, AP reported. Morsi, along with six other defendants, is in custody.

According to the Al Jazeera report, the two journalists sentenced to death are former director of news at the network's Arabic channel Ibrahim Helal and former Al Jazeera employee Alaa Sablan. Along with them, Rassd News Network journalist Asmaa Alkhatib, political activist Ahmed Afifi, flight attendant Mohamed Kilani, and academic Ahmed Ismail have also been given the death sentence.

"What really annoyed me... was the intensive talk and the self-assurances given by the judge and how he was sure these people betrayed the nation... For me, the real betrayal of this nation is wasting its time and money in these silly things and fabricated cases.

"If you read the evidences, the only two kinds of evidences they have are the secret investigations of the police which was disclosed and the... confessions of others who gave statements under interrogation and torture... This is a political case... They want to threaten all journalists inside and outside of Egypt," Helal, who was tried in absentia, was quoted by Al Jazeera as saying, while adding that the verdict "angered" him.

Calling it a "ruthless campaign against freedom of speech and expression," Al Jazeera, in a statement, condemned the verdict and requested the international community to stand united with the journalists. "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," Dr Mostefa Souag, acting director general of Al Jazeera Media Network said in a statement.

Amnesty International has condemned the verdict and has called for death penalties to be thrown out immediately and "for the ludicrous charges against the journalists to be dropped," AP reported.