The death sentences that an Egypt court recently recommended for three journalists in absentia are unjust and must not be allowed to stand, the International Press Institute (IPI) said today.

The court made the recommendation on Saturday in a case charging the journalists and three others with endangering national security by leaking state secrets and documents to Qatar.

The journalists include Al Jazeera employees Ibrahim Hilal and Alaa Sablan, and Asmaa Al Khateeb, a reporter for pro-Muslim Brotherhood news network Rassd. Sablan is a Jordanian national while Hilal and Al Khateeb are Egyptian.

Prosecutors argue that the defendants were involved in leaking sensitive documents that exposed military secrets. However, the defence claims that documents were moved out of Egypt’s presidential palace to protect them amid protests against the rule of former President Mohamed Morsi, who was deposed by the military in 2013. The defence also argues that the prosecution has failed to show any link to espionage.

IPI said the sentences worsened an already dire situation for press freedom in the country and it called on officials not to approve them.

“Sadly, Egypt’s judiciary has become notorious in recent years for its poor record in cases involving journalists, including the previous case targeting Al Jazeera journalists and the “Rabaa Operation Room” case, among many others,” IPI Director of Advocacy and Communications Steven M. Ellis said. “We are thankful that the journalists in this case are away from immediate harm, but extradition agreements with other countries mean that these sentences will still restrict their ability to work.

“We urge Egyptian officials not to approve or seek to implement these sentences and we call on other countries not to honour them. Journalism is not a crime and journalists should not face abuse, harassment or intimidation, much less the threat of state-sanctioned execution.”

A final decision is expected on June 18, when a ruling on others in the case, including Morsi, is expected. Meanwhile, the recommendation of death has been referred to Egyptian grand mufti, Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam. As the country’s highest religious leader and official interpreter of Islamic law, he is required to weigh in and his opinion, while non-binding, is usually observed by courts. Reuters reported that the journalists also have the ability to appeal, but Helal has disputed that.*

Al Jazeera, in a statement blasting the sentences, called them “unjust, shocking, and outrageous”. The network added: “The real crime is the death penalty ruling against the journalists.”

Saturday’s sentence came at the close of a week that saw journalists in Egypt take to the streets calling for the resignation of the interior minister for ordering a raid on the Cairo headquarters of the country’s journalists union. Police officers on May 1 stormed the building to arrest journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud al-Sakka.

Both work for website Yanair Gate, which is critical of the government of President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, and are accused of inciting protests in the wake of the detention of dozens of journalists amid unrest following Sisi’s decision to recognise Saudi Arabia as the owner of two disputed Red Sea islands, reportedly as a reward for the kingdom’s support for his government.

Also last week, Egypt’s Interior Ministry, in an apparent mistake, sent journalists internal memos with strategies for improving the Ministry’s image and deflecting criticism over the May 1 raid. The memos also suggested imposing a gag order barring the media from discussing the case of an Italian student found dead in January after he was kidnapped and tortured. The Ministry has rejected accusations that security forces were involved, but the case has strained relations with Italy.

*This statement was revised on May 11, 2016.