Courts & Crime

Egyptian court cuts tycoon's sentence in Lebanese pop star's murder

CAIRO, Egypt — An Egyptian court Tuesday sentenced a real estate tycoon to 15 years in prison for his role in the brutal murder of his former lover, a Lebanese pop star, in the latest twist in a sordid tale that has captivated the Middle East and tested the immunity of Egypt's elite.

Hesham Talaat Moustafa, 50, was found guilty of paying $2 million to ex-policeman Mohsen el Sukkary, 41, to kill 30-year-old singer Suzanne Tamim in 2008. Police found Tamim's body, with her throat slit, in her Dubai apartment, setting off a murder mystery that riveted the Arab world with its blend of wealth, sex and characters tied to the U.S.-backed Egyptian regime.

The sentence wasn't expected Tuesday. The judge handed down the penalty before even hearing the defense's closing arguments.

"This is an invalid ruling, the judge did not listen to the defense," said Sukkary's father, Munir el Sukkary, in a phone interview. Sukkary said his son's lawyer would appeal the sentence. Moustafa's defense team also told the media it would appeal the sentence.

A judicial expert agreed. "This constitutes a flaw, and it leads to the sentence being faulty. It gives a chance for an appeal," said Mahmoud el Khodeiry, the former deputy head of the Court of Cassation, which can grant appeals to criminal court rulings.

The sentence was a dramatic reduction from the original death penalty Moustafa and his accomplice Sukkary had received in May 2009. A court overturned their convictions in March and ordered a retrial on the grounds of procedural errors in the investigation and trial.

Sukkary's conviction was upheld, though his sentence was reduced to life in prison, which under the Egyptian penal code is 25 years. He received an extra three years in prison for illegal possession of weapons.

The original death sentence shocked Egyptians, but observers said the retrials and the lighter sentences would fuel skepticism about a regime that is perceived as corrupt, with flexible rules for the rich and powerful.

"No matter how fair the judge was, and no matter how strong his reasoning behind the ruling is, the public will perceive this sentence only in the light of the immense political power and wealth of Hesham Talaat Moustafa," said Bahey Eldin Hassan, the director of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights, an independent human rights advocacy group.

Moustafa had been a member of parliament's upper chamber, the Shoura Council, and a prominent member of the National Democratic Party, headed by the U.S.-allied President Hosni Mubarak. Moustafa also had close ties to Mubarak's son Gamal, 46, head of the ruling party's powerful policies secretariat that charts the party's program.

Apart from being an influential politician, Moustafa was the chairman of the Talaat Moustafa Group, a real estate empire behind the construction of lavish residential compounds that ring Cairo and of luxury hotels and resorts. His net worth is estimated at $800 million.

Tamim rose to stardom in the 1990s after she won the Arab World's equivalent of American Idol. She moved to Cairo and had a love affair with Moustafa, which soured after Tamim fled to London and then to the glitzy Gulf city-state of Dubai, and found another lover, according to regional news accounts of the investigation and trial.

(Naggar is a McClatchy special correspondent based in Cairo.)


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