LONDON (AA) – A former Al Jazeera news director facing the death penalty following an Egyptian court’s ruling has denounced the decision as politically motivated.
Ibrahim Helal, who was director of news for Al Jazeera’s Arabic TV network between 2011 and 2015, was sentenced in absentia earlier this month along with two other journalists on charges of endangering national security.
The journalists are among a group of six men accused of endangering Egyptian national security by spying for Qatar.
But Helal told Anadolu Agency that the accusations of espionage were baseless.
“I have never been anything but a journalist. I have never participated in political actions at any moment in my life and there is no evidence otherwise,” he said in written remarks.
He said the main accusation against him in the trial was that he mediated in the leaking to Qatar of sensitive documents, some of which exposed where the Egyptian army held its weapons.
Helal is said to have provided money to sources within the Egyptian presidential palace to leak the top secret documents to Qatari intelligence.
But court documents do not name the alleged Qatari intelligence officer who is said to have received the documents.
“The alleged part I am accused of is the cornerstone in entire case, as if there is no link between the defendants and the Qatari authorities, there will be no espionage,” he said.
“Here is the big hole in the case. If the Egyptian prosecutors couldn’t identify the Qatari officer, the entire case should fall apart. There is no espionage without a second part to spy for!”
He added: “I have never seized any document and there is no evidence that I have obtained or seized any of the mentioned documents.
“Also there is no evidence of any kind of any connection between me and the alleged Qatari intelligence officer, who is not identified so far.”
Helal is an experienced broadcast journalist, having worked for Egyptian television and the BBC before joining Al Jazeera at its launch in 1996. He became the Qatari network’s Arabic language channel’s director of news for three years starting in 2001, joining just months before the Sept. 11 attacks in the U.S.
He returned to the role in 2011 as a wave of protests and demonstrations were sweeping Arab countries across the Middle East.
The death penalty sought by the court has been referred to the grand mufti, the country’s top religious authority, for an opinion.
Helal is being tried in absentia and has no right to appeal, but co-defendants in the trial residing in Egypt do have that option, meaning the case is likely to be reviewed once again.
Egypt’s ousted President Mohamed Morsi is also charged in the same case, although at a May 7 hearing a verdict on his involvement was postponed to June 18, when the final ruling will be made.
Egypt's first democratically elected president Morsi was deposed by the Egyptian military in the summer of 2013 after a year in power, following mass protests against his rule.
Since then, Egyptian authorities have cracked down on dissent through operations that have mainly targeted the ousted president’s supporters and members of his Muslim Brotherhood group.
Last week, three UN human rights experts urged the Egyptian government to end “disproportionate reactions” against worsening rights to assembly and expression.
“The worsening crackdown on peaceful protest and dissent in Egypt represents a further setback for an open political environment and a vibrant civil society,” the UN special rapporteurs – David Kaye, Maina Kiai and Michel Forst – said in a statement.
They added: “The use of force against civil society and against the expression of dissenting views on political issues contribute to a deteriorating climate for the promotion and protection of fundamental rights that form the essential components of a democratic society.”