An Egyptian court on Saturday sentenced six people, including three journalists, to death for allegedly leaking state secrets to Qatar. The three journalists were tried in absentia [Reuters report] and will have the ability to appeal the ruling. However, a final decision will not come down until June once the Grand Mufti, the highest Sunni religious official in the country, has given his opinion on the decision [Al Jazeera report]. Former president Mohamed Morsi [BBC backgrounder] was supported by Qatar and is also charged with espionage for the country. Al Jazeera criticized the journalists’ death sentences, calling for international action to protect press freedom. They also denounced the Egyptian court system, which they claim does not operate independently and hinders freedom and human rights.
Egypt [BBC timeline] has been internationally scrutinized in recent months over allegations of human rights infringements and free speech violations. Last month Egypt’s Court of Cassation overturned the five-year prison sentences of 35 Al-Azhar students, ordering a retrial [JURIST report]. Earlier in April three UN human rights experts urged Egypt to cease its ongoing crackdown on humans rights defenders and organizations [JURIST report]. In March Egyptian Justice Minister Ahmed al-Zind was relieved of his position [JURIST report] after making controversial statements on television. After being asked a question regarding the imprisonment of journalists, al-Zind responded that he would even imprison the Prophet Mohammed.