Egypt has sentenced the chief of the journalists Yehia Qallash union and two of the group’s members to two years in prison for “harboring fugitives”.

A court in Cairo announced its verdict in absentia against Yehia Qallash, the head of Egypt’s Press Syndicate, and Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rahim on Saturday after the trio abstained from appearing in court.

According to a court official, the judge also set a bail at 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($615) for each defendant, and announced that the trio can appeal the decision.

The case goes back to early May, when security forces raided the headquarters and arrested two wanted journalists, Mahmoud El Sakka and Amr Badr, over their protests against President’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s move on June 21 to cede control of two Egyptian islands to Saudi Arabia under a maritime border deal signed on April 8. They were later released on bail pending trial.

The controversial move, however, infuriated journalists and human rights activists at the time, calling for the interior minister’s resignation, and a presidential apology. Cairo, instead, detained the trio, questioned them and charged them with giving shelter to the two “fugitive” journalists, and spreading false news regarding the raid.

Qalash had condemned the raid and the following arrests, saying the government was “escalating the war against journalism and journalists.”

The European Union also slammed the decision at the time and called it “a worrying development,” which reflected broader limitations on freedom of expression and press freedom in the North African country.

The Saturday verdict also drew condemnation from a number of human rights activists and lawyers.

“The case shouldn’t have gone to court to begin with. The decision is political … We are not talking here about law and the judiciary,” said Gamal Eid, a human rights lawyer and founder of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information.

Amnesty International has urged Egyptian authorities to drop the charges against the syndicate’s chiefs.

The three unionists have strongly rejected the charges, with Balshy saying that they still “have battles to fight for the rights of the journalists.”

Cairo has taken a hard line with journalists working in the public. Reports say they can only film or interview people in government-sanctioned events. Reporters working for pro-government media outlets face less restriction.

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