Washington, May 11, 2016 -- The Committee to Protect Journalists today strongly condemned an Egyptian court's recommendation to sentence three journalists to death. They were convicted of helping to smuggle secret documents to Qatari intelligence officers and the Qatari broadcaster Al-Jazeera. The journalists include two Al-Jazeera employees.
Judge Mohammed Shirin Fahmy on May 7 recommended the death penalty for six people -- including Ibrahim Helal, former news director at Al-Jazeera's Arabic news channel, Al-Jazeera producer Alaa Omar Mohammed Sablan, and Asmaa Al-Khatib, a former news editor for the pro-Muslim brotherhood news site Rassd -- convicted of espionage in connection with the leaked documents, according to press reports. The other three defendants convicted Saturday are documentary film producer and Islamist political activist Ahmed Afifi, flight attendant Mohamed Kilani, and academic Ahmed Ismail.
The three journalists sentenced on May 7 were tried in absentia, and are not in Egypt. Afifi, Kilani, and Ismail are in state custody. Egypt's Mufti, an official tasked with offering religious opinions, must now give the court his non-binding opinion on all the provisional death sentences before a final sentencing hearing scheduled for June 18. All the verdicts are subject to appeal.
"Egypt's rulers have made no secret of their hostility to independent journalism. But for a court to sentence journalists to death would represent a new low," CPJ Middle East and North Africa Program Coordinator Sherif Mansour said. "We call on Egyptian prosecutors not to contest any appeals filed by the journalists' lawyers."
The judge said he would deliver on June 18 a verdict in the case of former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, whom the military ousted after mass protests in July 2013, and four other people charged in the same case. Khaled Abdel Wahab Radwan, a former managing producer for the defunct Egypt 25 television channel - which was formerly owned by figures linked to the Muslim Brotherhood -- is among those awaiting a verdict on June 18. Radwan is in custody, according to news reports.
In a statement emailed to CPJ, Al-Jazeera condemned the May 7 ruling, calling it "unjust, shocking, and outrageous."
The Interior Ministry on March 30, 2014, published a video on the social media website Facebook in which Afifi confessed to hiding three bags of secret government documents in Ismail's home and implicated the others in what the court found was an operation to smuggle the documents to their buyers in the Qatari intelligence agency and Al-Jazeera.
Helal and Al-Khatib, speaking to CPJ from Qatar and Turkey, respectively, both denied having had any role in smuggling the documents. Helal said he believes his conviction was the result of his decision to publish on March 27, 2014, a memorandum dated May 2013 from Mahmoud Hegazy, then the head of Military Intelligence, to Morsi, recommending that the president work more closely with Hamas to maintain stability in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. Helal also said he does not know the three defendants in custody who were sentenced along with the journalists.
The Ministry of Interior did not return phone calls or emails from CPJ seeking comment.