Egyptian billionaire sentenced to death for murder

By Cynthia Johnston

CAIRO (Reuters) - A billionaire Egyptian businessman and politician was sentenced to death Thursday for ordering the murder of a Lebanese pop star reported to have been his lover in a gory case that captivated the Arab world.

The verdict was greeted with shock in Egypt where members of the elite are generally regarded as being above the law and where reporting of the trial was banned.

Hesham Talaat Moustafa was found to have paid a hit man $2 million (1 million pounds) to stab Suzanne Tamim, 30, to death at her luxury apartment in Dubai. Media reports labelled the attack an act of revenge after she ended their relationship.

Chaos broke out in the courtroom after sentence was passed. Moustafa's supporters scuffled with journalists who tried to catch a glimpse of the condemned man as he stood in a metal cage dressed in a white jumpsuit.

Samir al-Shishtawi, a lawyer for the defence, called the ruling "severe" and said he expected it would be overturned on appeal. It still faces review by a top Muslim religious figure.

"It is a ruling aimed at deterrence more than at implementing the law," Shishtawi said.

Tamim rose to fame after winning the top prize in a television show in 1996. Friends celebrated the verdict against a powerful figure from Egypt's ruling party who was stripped of his parliamentary immunity so he could face trial.

"I knew the girl since she was a child and she used to play with my kids, so I am satisfied with the verdict. God have mercy on her. She did a lot of charity work," Tamim's former neighbour Sami al-Labban told Reuters television in Lebanon.


Security man Muhsen el-Sukkari, accused of carrying out the crime at Moustafa's behest, was also condemned to death. He was reported to have tricked the singer into opening her door in Dubai by posing as a representative of the building's owners.

He then stabbed her with a knife, the indictment said.

Sukkari later dumped bloody clothes near the crime scene, leaving DNA, prosecutors said. Evidence also included phone calls between Moustafa, who was married and born in 1959, and Sukkari.

Media reports said Sukkari had worked in security in a hotel Moustafa's company had built.

The verdict came as a shock to the Egyptian market where shares in the Talaat Moustafa Group that Moustafa formerly chaired plunged. It is Egypt's largest listed real estate developer by market value.

There has been loud grumbling in Egypt about public accountability following a 2006 ferry disaster, a fire in parliament and a deadly rockslide in a Cairo shantytown.

"I think this regime would want to disassociate (itself from) someone who goes out in a very conspicuous way and does something that society condemns," said Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

But the ruling was not a sign of a broader government push for public accountability, he said, and he doubted the sentence would be carried out. The court will reconvene on June 25 after a review by the senior religious authority.

Moustafa handed over the chairmanship of the Talaat Moustafa Group to his brother Tarek after being charged.

(Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan, Mahmoud Ali and Reuters television; Writing by Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Caroline Drees)

Article Published: 21/05/2009