CAIRO: An Egyptian court sentenced the head of the journalists' union and two board members to two years in prison on Saturday for harboring colleagues wanted by the law and spreading false news, judicial sources and their lawyer said.

Amnesty International condemned the sentences as "a new stage of a crackdown on media and freedom of expression".

The verdict comes amid efforts by Egyptian authorities to quell rising dissent against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as the economy deteriorates.

Union chief Yehia Qalash and the two board members, Khaled al-Balshy and Gamal Abdel Rahim, can appeal the decision. A bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds($623) has been set for each of them.

"The three of us have been put on trial (but) the target is the whole syndicate," Qalash told dozens of journalists and union officials who gathered at the syndicate headquarters after the verdict.

Union officials called for an emergency syndicate meeting this weekend to discuss how to respond to the verdict.

Riot police and armored vehicles filled the streets surrounding the building.

The verdict marks the first time for a head of the journalists' syndicate to be put on trial since the union was founded 75 years ago.

CRACKDOWN

Prosecutors ordered the three to be questioned in May after what their lawyer at the time, Sayyed Abou Zeid, said was a police raid on the syndicate headquarters to arrest two opposition journalists who had taken refuge there.

The arrests of the two men, Mahmoud El Sakka and Amr Badr, sparked protests from journalists and Qalash demanded the interior minister be sacked.

The interior ministry denied any police raid had occurred but confirmed the arrest of Sakka and Badr, who work for the opposition website Bawabet Yanayer and were wanted on criminal charges.

Commenting on Saturday's verdict, Amnesty's Mohamed Ahmed, a researcher on Egypt and a human rights lawyer, told Reuters: "Qalash, al-Balshy and Abdel Rahim should have never been arrested or put on trial for doing their job,

"Egypt is one of the worst countries in terms of detention of journalists and comes second after China," Ahmed added.

Egyptian authorities have cracked down hard on the Islamist, secular and liberal opposition alike since Sisi, then the army chief, toppled elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi in 2013 after mass protests against his rule. Hundreds have been killed and thousands have been arrested, including journalists.

Sisi denies that Egypt restricts media freedom.