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Egyptian tycoon sentenced to die in Lebanese diva's slaying

The verdict against Hisham Talaat Mustafa, a former lawmaker with ties to President Hosni Mubarak's family, may be a sign that 'nobody is above the law,' one commentator says.

May 22, 2009|Jeffrey Fleishman and Noha El-Hennawy

CAIRO — A billionaire developer and former member of the Egyptian parliament was convicted and sentenced to death Thursday for arranging the murder of his ex-girlfriend, a Lebanese pop singer whose body was found in her high-rise apartment in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai.

The verdict against Hisham Talaat Mustafa, once a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, is the latest twist in a stunning drama that has offered a peek into the closely guarded realm of Egypt's politicians and businessmen.

Mustafa, one of the country's richest men, was found guilty of paying $2 million to a former policeman last year to kill Suzanne Tamim, a diva whose professional slide had led her into the relationship.

Mustafa, who appeared in court in prison-issue white shirt and pants, was granted an immediate review of the sentence by Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa. A religious investigation is common in Egypt for death penalty cases.

Few had expected that a tycoon who built luxury hotels and has ties to President Hosni Mubarak's family would be facing the gallows.

"I am definitely sad because today's decision shows that the court is moving in a particular direction," said Mustafa's lawyer, Farid Deeb.

He said his client, who sat in a defendant's cage during the brief hearing, was also entitled to an appeal before Egypt's highest court.

The verdict may be a sign to businessmen "that nobody is above the law," said Hassan Nafae, a political commentator. "It may deter some arrogant businessmen who thought there were no political or legal constraints on their ambitions as well as their sexual desires."

When the judge in a cramped Cairo courtroom read Mustafa's fate, the defendant showed almost no emotion, but the crowd surged toward the cage and chaos ensued. Security guards hurried Mustafa into the hall as his family and friends screamed and wept. A woman described by Egyptian satellite television as Mustafa's daughter fainted; other reports said it was his wife.

The case has fascinated news media across the Middle East. Egypt's prosecutor general, Abdel-Maguid Mahmoud, had newspapers confiscated from kiosks and ordered a ban on reporting on the case as the police investigation pointed toward Mustafa, who was a member of the ruling party's Policy Secretariat, headed by Mubarak's son Gamal. But the party's ability to protect one of its own collided with the insistence of authorities in Dubai, part of the United Arab Emirates, that Mustafa be charged with murder.

Mustafa hired hotel security guard and former policeman Mohsen Sukkari to kill Tamim, 31, after she broke off their relationship when she became involved with an Iraqi kickboxing champion. Mustafa, a married man, had dated Tamim for three years; the couple met in hotels and apartments in London, Dubai and Cairo.

Police say Sukkari, who was also sentenced to death, entered Tamim's flat in Dubai on July 28 by posing as a representative of the building's owners. He slit her throat and fled, leaving his bloody clothes behind and his picture on a surveillance camera. He was soon arrested and implicated Mustafa, whose conversations with Sukkari about the killing were caught on state security eavesdropping tapes.

Mustafa was head of Talaat Mustafa Group, which built hotels and businesses throughout the Middle East, including at the Egyptian resort Sharm el Sheik. Tamim rose to prominence after winning a TV talent show in Lebanon in 1996, but legal battles with her estranged second husband, a music producer, hurt her career.

Nafae, the political commentator, said he thought Mustafa's lawyers would have found "loopholes . . . but this would have caused too much public uproar because the crime is horrendous and reflects a great exploitation of political leverage and shows that the defendant thought he was above the law."

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jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

El-Hennawy is in The Times' Cairo Bureau.

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