CAIRO — An Egyptian criminal court Monday began to retry a real estate tycoon and a policeman-turned-hitman, both of whom had received the death sentences for allegedly killing a Lebanese pop star. The case has captivated the Arab world and triggered endless conspiracy theories in Egypt.
Wealthy businessman Hisham Talaat Moustafa, 50, was sentenced to death last May on charges of hiring Mohsen el Sukkary, 41, and paying him $2 million to kill 30-year-old Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim in the United Arab Emirates.
Tamim rose to stardom in the 1990s after she won the Arab World's equivalent of American Idol. She moved to Cairo and became involved with Moustafa in a love affair, which turned sour after Tamim fled to London and then to the glitzy Persian Gulf city-state of Dubai in the UAE, and found another lover. Dubai police found her in her apartment with her throat slit in July 2008.
"I swear to God I didn't kill her," el Sukkary shouted in a courtroom packed with journalists, lawyers and family members of the defendants. Moustafa also denied the charges.
"My son has been unjustly sitting behind bars for the past two years. But I am optimistic about the retrial," el Sukkary's father, Munir, said outside the court.
Many Egyptians were bitter about the decision to retry the case, taking it as a sign that Moustafa will walk away unscathed as a member of the elite in a country where cronyism is widespread and many people think rules are often bent for the rich and powerful.
The Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest appeals court, granted Moustafa and el Sukkary a new trial on March 4, on the grounds that there'd been procedural errors during the investigation and trial.
"This system is corrupt to the bone," said dentist Sarah Taha, 25, interviewed at a seaside vacation villa. She thought Moustafa's connections would save him from the hangman's noose.
Moustafa is a member of parliament's upper chamber, the Shura council, and a prominent member of the ruling National Democratic Party, headed by Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president. He's also a close ally of Mubarak's son Gamal, who chairs the NDP's powerful policies secretariat.
Apart from being an influential politician, he was the chairman of the Talaat Moustafa Group, a real estate empire behind the construction of lavish residential compounds that ring Cairo. These, along with luxury hotels and resorts, have given him a net worth estimated at $800 million.
"He's going to walk, no doubt about it," said Hany el Saied, 31, an accountant, interviewed at a Cairo supermarket. He said he'd been surprised by the death sentence Moustafa received. "After the death sentence I thought things had changed, and people were going to be held accountable for their actions. Now I think everything in Egypt is solved through money and connections," el Saied added.
Conspiracy theories thrived after the entrepreneur was convicted. Some thought his friends in the regime had cut him loose because his name was tarnished by his involvement in a murder case. Others thought that the UAE authorities had pressured Egypt into prosecuting Moustafa.
Those who thought the integrity of the Egyptian judicial system had been rescued felt let down by the retrial.
There's a growing gap between Egypt's rich and poor, and the country has been riveted in recent months by protests demanding higher wages. Legal experts, however, said that popular anger toward an unpopular regime shouldn't reflect on the trial.
"I read the ruling that granted the new trial, and found it correct and very precise," said Yehia al Gamal, a human rights advocate and law professor at Cairo University. "However the image of the regime in people's minds is a distorted and rotten one. This is why there is a deep distrust," Gamal added.
"Whether he is a corrupt businessman, or even a thief, does not mean he deserves to hang. Until the court says otherwise, he is innocent," said Negad al Boraei, an attorney. "I think the Egyptian people have been very sadistic about this case," Boraei added.
(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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