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Egyptian Town Reeling Over Mass Death Sentence


Now to rural Egypt where the people of one town are reeling from a shocking court ruling earlier this week. Five hundred and twenty-nine people were sentenced to death for the killing of a police officer in street violence last year. Many were tried in absentia and the judge's ruling came after barely any evidence was heard. Amnesty International says it might be the largest mass death sentence in modern times.

NPR's Leila Fadel visited the town.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Some 100 miles south of Cairo, there is a town called Matea, a town that feels condemned. Five hundred and twenty-nine people from a town of maybe 50,000 people who live here and in the surrounding villages were sentenced to death this week. This is a small spot on the map of mostly unpaved roads, low slung buildings and mom and pop shops.

And on every narrow street, at least one family, often more, have a relative or several who may be hanged for accusations they couldn't defend themselves against. Last August, this town, like a lot of Egypt, saw clashes between police and Islamists. One policeman was killed and for that crime, after barely an hour of court time this week, a judge sentenced hundreds to die.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: We meet Ahmad Shabib(ph), a lawyer working on the case in his dingy office on the main drag of Madea. On this one street where we speak to Shabib, he tell us some 30 people will be put to death if the court decision stands. (Unintelligible) the juice store owner, (unintelligible) the Muslim Brotherhood leader, (unintelligible) the sweet store owner and others.

Among them is Ahmad's brother, Hasam Shabib, a local doctor who was called in to work that night to treat the wounded, he fled the country before the conviction out of fear, but he is innocent, Shabib says. The decision could be overturned, but human rights groups say the mass death sentences are a new low in a month's long crackdown on Islamists from the now banned Muslim Brotherhood and critics of the state that has left thousands dead and thousands more arrested.

The United Nations and the U.S. are among many who voiced outrage over the decision. Shabib takes us to the home of Ahmed Tahlid(ph). He's another lawyer who was working on the case until authorities accused of him of being involved in the crime and sentenced him to death as well. We walk up the stairs and sit in the small living room with Ahmed Tahlid's wife and father.

The two of them alternate between weeping and laughing at the absurdity of the situation. Ahmed Tahlid was home the night of the incident and if the judge had given him a chance, there were 22 witnesses that could've confirmed he was in this neighborhood that night. But he didn't get his day in court, his family says. He was in prison when a judge sealed his fate.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

CORNISH: Where is the justice, his wife Mahasaid(ph) asks. The judge condemned my husband to death in minutes. When the couple's two kids ask about their dad, she tells them that he's on a very big case and that, God willing, he will come home. But she's not sure he ever will. People here say this judge was emboldened by the military backed crackdown going on across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: She says the Egyptian government accuses anyone that opposes any of its decisions of collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, but my husband, she says, is not even part of that movement. The Muslim Brotherhood was ousted from power last year by the military after much of the country turned against Islamist President Mohammad Morsi for perceived abuses of power and incompetence.

Since then, most Brotherhood leaders have been imprisoned and supporters and other critics are hunted down.

HEI TAHLID: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: Ahmed Tahlid's father, Hei Tahlid(ph) chimes in, I used to like Field Marshall Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, he says. He refers to Egypt's military chief who has wide support to become the country's next president. But Hei Tahlid says he cannot support him. At this, his daughter-in-law shushed him, afraid that the talk of politics will hurt her husband more, but he keeps talking.

TAHLID: (Speaking foreign language)

FADEL: Morsi took us backwards with his ideologies and his bad leadership, Hei Tahlid says, but after what Sisi did to my son, allowing the arrest of the wrong people, I cannot love him, he says, choking back tears. None of the families of these 500 people can love him. Tell the world, he says, tell the world so they can help my son. Leila Fadel, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.