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An Egyptian court on Wednesday upheld a decision by the state prosecutor and ordered a freeze on the assets of 29 Muslim Brotherhood members known to be the financiers of the country's most powerful opposition movement.
The court order hits the Islamic group's key financiers and is part of a government push to undermine the banned movement financially. Among the 29 was Khayrat el-Shater, the fundamentalist group's third-highest ranking member, known to be the group's chief strategist and a main financier.
Egyptian authorities signaled a crackdown on the group's financial committee earlier this year, when the state prosecutor ordered the assets of the 29 Brotherhood members be frozen. For the freeze to take effect, Wednesday's court order was necessary.
It followed a wave of arrests since a December protest by the Brotherhood in which 50 young members appeared in military-style black uniforms and balaclavas at Egypt's Al-Azhar university - prompting government claims the Brotherhood was taking up arms.
In all, a total of about 300 Brotherhood members are in custody. In early February, the government ordered 40 other Brotherhood members - including el-Shater - to be put on a separate trial before a military court on charges of money laundering and terrorism.
Also among the 29 - all of who are in custody and whose assets were frozen Wednesday - were the Brotherhood's executive, Mohammed Ali Bishr, and a millionaire businessman patron of the group, Hassan Malik. The 29 appeared in an area barred-off from the rest of the courtroom during the hearing Wednesday.
When the court pronounced its decision, they began shouting anti-government slogans. The hearings ended in a melee.
"Take our money and our companies but we will abide by our cause ... Oh history witness this, they have stolen the Brotherhood's money," some of the accused chanted from behind bars.
"This is a dictatorial regime, this is an autocratic regime," el-Shater shouted.
Outside the court, about 200 of the group's supporters and families of the 29 staged a protest, carrying banners denouncing the court and calling it unfair.
Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Maksoud, a lawyer for the group, called the decision "illegal," and said this is a "political issue that has no logical grounds."
"This is a message from the government, but it will not affect the Brotherhood's peaceful discourse," the lawyer said.
The Brotherhood is Egypt's largest political opposition group. It won 88 of parliament's 454 seats in 2005 elections, with its candidates running as independents. The group renounced violence in the 1970s.