CAIRO: An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced six people, including two Al-Jazeera employees, to death for allegedly passing documents related to national security to Qatar and the Doha-based TV network during the rule of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi.
Morsi, the top defendant, and two of his aides were sentenced to 25 years in prison for membership in the now-banned Muslim Brotherhood group but were acquitted of espionage, a capital offense. Morsi and his secretary, Amin el-Sirafy, each received an additional 15-year sentence for leaking official documents. El-Sirafy's daughter, Karima, was also sentenced to 15 years on the same charge.
Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected leader, was ousted by the military in July 2013 and has already been sentenced to death in another case. That death sentence and another two — life and 20 years in prison — are under appeal. The Brotherhood was banned and declared a terrorist organization after his ouster. Khalid Radwan, a producer at a Brotherhood-linked TV channel, received a 15-year prison sentence.
All of Saturday's verdicts can be appealed. Of the case's 11 defendants, seven, including Morsi, are in custody.
Amnesty International called for the death sentences to be immediately thrown out and for the "ludicrous charges against the journalists to be dropped."
The two Al-Jazeera employees — identified by the judge as news producer Alaa Omar Mohammed and newseditor Ibrahim Mohammed Hilal — were sentenced to death in absentia along with Asmaa al-Khateib, who worked for Rasd, a media network widely suspected of links to Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Jazeera condemned the verdicts, saying they were part of a "ruthless" campaign against freedom of expression, and called on the international community to show solidarity with the journalists.
"This sentence is only one of many politicized sentences that target Al Jazeera and its employees," the network's acting director Mostefa Souag said in a statement. "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."
A news story that appeared earlier on the Al-Jazeera English website identified Hilal as a former director ofnews at Al-Jazeera's Arabic channel and said Alaa Omar Mohammed was an Al-Jazeera employee until last year. The network's statement confirmed Hilal's status, but only said that Mohammed was "identified by the prosecution as an Al-Jazeera journalist."
The three other defendants sentenced to death Saturday are documentary producer Ahmed Afify, EgyptAir cabin crew member Mohammed Keilany and academic Ahmed Ismail.
Judge Mohammed Shirin Fahmy recommended the death sentence for the six last month. Under standard procedure in cases of capital punishment, his recommendation went to the office of Egypt's Grand Mufti, the nation's top Muslim theological authority, for endorsement.
Fahmy quoted the Mufti's office as saying the six had sought to harm the country when they passed to a foreign nation details of the army's deployment as well as reports prepared by intelligence agencies.
"They are more dangerous than spies, because spies are usually foreigners, but these are, regrettably, Egyptians who betrayed the trust," the judge said. "No ideology can ever justify the betrayal of one's country."
Egypt's relations with Qatar have been fraught with tension since the ouster of Morsi, who enjoyed the support of the tiny but wealthy Gulf state. Cairo also maintains that Al-Jazeera's news coverage of Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is biased in favor of militant Islamic groups.
Last year, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi pardoned two imprisoned journalists from the Al-Jazeera Englishnews network. Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-born Canadian, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were arrested in December 2013. They had been sentenced to three years in prison for airing what a court described as "falsenews" and coverage biased in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The prosecution of the two, along with Australian Peter Greste — another Al-Jazeera English reporter who was deported in February last year — drew strong international condemnation.
Egypt was ranked 158 out of 180 countries in the 2015 Press Freedom Index, according to Reporters Without Borders. In December, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Egypt was second only to China as the world's worst jailer of journalists in 2015.