Egypt court recommends death for 2 Al-Jazeera employees

CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian court on Saturday recommended the death sentence against six people, including two Al-Jazeera employees, for allegedly passing documents related to national security to Qatar and the Doha-based TV network during the rule of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi.

A verdict on Morsi, ousted by the military in July 2013 after one year in office, and four other defendants in the case, will be announced June 18, judge Mohammed Shirin Fahmy announced. Morsi's co-defendants include his office director and private secretary.

The two Al-Jazeera employees — identified by the judge as news producer Alaa Omar Mohammed and news editor Ibrahim Mohammed Hilal — were sentenced in absentia along with Asmaa al-Khateib, who worked for Rasd, a media network widely suspected of links to Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was banned and declared a terrorist group after Morsi's ouster.

"Al Jazeera media network rejects the absurd allegations that they (Mohammed and Hilal) were in collaboration with the elected government of Mohammed Morsi," a spokesman for Al-Jazeera said in an email to The Associated Press.

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 accuses Al-Jazeera's news coverage of Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East of bias in favor of militant Islamic groups.

Last year, President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi pardoned two imprisoned journalists from the Al-Jazeera English news network.

Mohamed Fahmy, an Egyptian-born Canadian, and Egyptian Baher Mohamed were arrested in December 2013. They were sentenced last year to three years in prison for airing what a court described as "false news" and coverage biased in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The prosecution of the two, along with Australian Peter Greste — deported in February last year — drew strong international condemnations.

Their long-running trial was entangled from the start with the wider political enmity between Egypt and Qatar following Morsi's ouster.

The three other defendants for whom death sentences were recommended Saturday are documentary producer Ahmed Afify, EgyptAir cabin crew member Mohammed Keilany and academic Ahmed Ismail, according to Saturday's verdict.

Fahmy, the judge, said case documents pertaining to all six would be sent to the Grand Mufti, Egypt's top religious authority, for his review.

The Mufti's opinion, however, is not binding and the six will be sentenced alongside the five other defendants on June 18.