Egypt sentences journalists to death
Middle East | Government uses harsh punishments to silence opposition
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 6/20/16, 12:16 pm
An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced six people to death, including two Al Jazeera reporters, after accusing them of leaking national security documents to Qatar and the Al Jazeera TV network in Doha, Qatar. The ruling reflects Egypt’s continuous attempt to control all forms of opposition. Experts believe the country may not follow through with the death sentences.
The Cairo Criminal Court sentenced former Al Jazeera news producer Alaa Omar Mohammed and former news editor Ibrahim Mohammed Hilal to death in absentia, along with Asmaa al-Khateib, who worked for Rasd media network. Three others who were sentenced to death—flight attendant Mohamed Keilani, political activist Ahmed Afify, and academic Ahmed Ismail—remain in state custody.
“This is a political case,” Hilal told Al Jazeera. “They want to threaten journalists inside and outside of Egypt.”
Judge Mohammed Shirin Fahmy recommended the death sentence May 7. The court sought the opinion of Egypt’s Grand Mufti, the highest religious leader in the country. Egypt’s law requires the Mufti to sign off on the death sentences, though his opinion is unbinding. Fahmy said the defendants’ actions could have harmed the country.
“They are more dangerous than spies, because spies are usually foreigners,” Fahmy said. “No ideology can ever justify the betrayal of one’s country.”
The court also sentenced former President Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first freely elected leader, and two of his aides to 25 years in prison for membership in the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group. Morsi already is facing the death penalty on other charges. He and two of his aides each received an additional 15-year sentence for leaking official documents while he was in office. The military overthrew Morsi in 2013 following mass protests one year after he became president.
The defendants can appeal the ruling in Egypt’s Court of Cassation. Human rights group Amnesty International condemned the court’s decision and called for the charges to be dropped.
“While this outcome is appalling, it is sadly not surprising,” Magdalena Mughrabi-Talhami, Amnesty’s deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa Program, said in a written statement. “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.”
In December, the Committee to Protect Journalists said Egypt ranked second after China as the world’s worst jailer of journalists in 2015.
Since the ousting of Morsi, Egypt has dealt several death sentences to journalists and members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Amnesty International revealed in a 2015 report that Egypt issued 538 confirmed death sentences last year, but the group confirmed only 22 executions. Ebrahim Deen of the Afro-Middle East Center in South Africa said the absence of some of the accused from Egypt also raises hope that the sentences will fall through.
“It’s very unlikely that Egypt will follow through,” Deen said. “And it’s very unlikely if there’s an extradition request that the countries in question will follow through.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Onize is a reporter for WORLD Digital based in Abuja, Nigeria.