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Muslim Brotherhood Spritual Leader and 682 Supporters Handed Death Sentence in Egypt

"Why? This is unfair!"

An Egyptian woman overcome by emotion weeps after a judge sentenced to death more than 680 alleged supporters of the country’s ousted Islamist president over acts of violence and the murder of policemen in the latest mass trial in the southern city of Minya, Egypt, Monday, April 28, 2014. Attorney Ahmed Hefni told reporters outside the court in Minya on Monday that the death sentences first have to be approved by Egypt's mufti, the top Islamic official — a step that is usually considered a formality. (Photo: AP/Ahmed Gomaa)\n

An Egyptian court on Monday handed down the death sentence to the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood as well as 682 of the Islamist group's alleged supporters, news agencies are reporting.

However, the same judge commuted the sentences to life imprisonment for most of the 529 who were sentenced to death last month, the Associated Press reported, calling it “a surprise reversal.”

The death penalty for Mohamed Badie, the group’s spiritual guide, is just the latest in an ongoing official crackdown on supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi, including the arrest of thousands and the branding of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group.

An Egyptian woman overcome by emotion weeps after a judge sentenced to death more than 680 alleged supporters of the country’s ousted Islamist president over acts of violence and the murder of policemen in the latest mass trial in the southern city of Minya, Egypt, Monday, April 28, 2014. Attorney Ahmed Hefni told reporters outside the court in Minya on Monday that the death sentences first have to be approved by Egypt's mufti, the top Islamic official — a step that is usually considered a formality. (Photo: AP/Ahmed Gomaa) An Egyptian woman overcome by emotion weeps after a judge sentenced to death more than 680 alleged supporters of the country’s ousted Islamist president over acts of violence and the murder of policemen in the latest mass trial in the southern city of Minya, Egypt, Monday, April 28, 2014. Attorney Ahmed Hefni told reporters outside the court in Minya on Monday that the death sentences first have to be approved by Egypt's mufti, the top Islamic official — a step that is usually considered a formality. (Photo: AP/Ahmed Gomaa)

The defendants were charged with attacking a police station in Minya last year, during which a policeman was killed.

The judge told the court on Monday that he would refer his death sentence ruling to Egypt’s Grand Mufti, which is required under Egyptian law, but which the AP described as “a formality.”

If his sentence is approved, Badie would be the most senior Brotherhood leader to face the death penalty since 1966, the AP noted.

An AP reporter described in the scene outside the courthouse upon hearing the sentences, where women fainted and cried out, "Why? This is unfair!"

"My three sons are inside," a woman named Samiya said. "I have no one but God."

This video posted on YouTube showed female relatives wailing outside the courthouse when they heard the sentences:

A BBC correspondent outside the courthouse said that the relatives outside were not initially told which of the defendants was sentenced to death and whose sentence was commuted, adding to their torment.

The mass sentencing drew criticism from human rights activists, particularly because both trials lasted mere hours and defense lawyers were reportedly not able to present their cases.

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for Middle East and North Africa at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters, "It seems that these sentences are aimed at striking fear and terror into the hearts of those who oppose the interim government including the interim government."

Lawyer Ali Kamal told the AP that Monday’s hearing lasted only eight minutes and that family members were blocked from entering the courthouse.

"This is against the spirit of the law. The verdicts will be easily appealed," Kamal said.

The AP further reported that 148 defendants were present in the court, but that it was unclear why the others were absent.

In his decision on Monday, the judge commuted the death sentences for all but 37 of the 529 Islamists sentenced in March.

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