An Egyptian court on Saturday recommended the death penalty for three journalists and three others charged with endangering national security by leaking state secrets to Qatar, in a ruling condemned by the Doha-based Al Jazeera channel as shocking.
Jordanian national Alaa Omar Sablan and Ibrahim Mohammed Helal, who both work for Al Jazeera, and Asmaa Al Khateeb, a reporter for Rassd, a pro-Muslim Brotherhood news network, were sentenced in absentia. They can appeal.
The sentence is the latest since a crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood after an army takeover stripped former president Mohammed Mursi of power in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.
Al Jazeera said the ruling provoked "shock and anger" and called for international action to safeguard journalists' rights to report news freely.
"The death sentence against journalists is unprecedented in the history of world media and amounts to a real stab against freedom of expression around the world," the satellite channel said in a statement posted on its website.
Mursi and other Brotherhood leaders, as well as leading figures from the 2011 popular uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, many of them secular activists and journalists, are now in jail.
Following Saturday's ruling, a final decision is expected on June 18, after the sentence has been referred to the top religious authority, the Grand Mufti, for a non-binding opinion.
Judge Mohammed Shireen Fahmy, who announced the verdict, also said that a ruling against Mursi and several others charged in the same case, would be postponed to the same date.
Prosecutors in Saturday's case argued that Mursi's aides were involved in leaking sensitive documents to Qatari intelligence that exposed the location of weapons held by the Egyptian armed forces.
Defence lawyers said that documents were moved out of the presidential palace to protect them during growing protests against Mursi's rule, but this process was not the responsibility of the president and the documents presented in the case show no signs of spying.
"The case's documents are devoid of any type of espionage or participation in it," a defence lawyer told Reuters. Mursi has been sentenced in three other cases, including the death penalty for a mass jail break during the 2011 uprising and a life sentence for spying on behalf of Hamas.
Qatar had supported Mursi, who is in jail along with thousands of Brotherhood members, many of whom have been sentenced to death on separate charges. Relations between Qatar, a Gulf Arab state, and Egypt have been icy since July 2013 when Egypt's then-army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi overthrew Mursi.
Sisi says the Brotherhood poses a serious threat to security despite the crackdown, which has weakened what was once Egypt's most organised political group.