Friday, May 22, 2009
Egyptian Tycoon Sentenced to Death for Murder
A Cairo courtroom erupted Thursday after Hisham Talaat Moustafa was sentenced to death in the murder of the Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim. Egyptians assume that a man with his wealth and connections is above the law’s reach. More Photos >
May 22, 2009
Egyptian Tycoon Sentenced to Death for Murder
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
CAIRO — A wealthy and politically connected Egyptian businessman was sentenced to death on Thursday for hiring a hit man to kill a Lebanese pop singer in a case that has captivated the Middle East for nearly a year with its storyline of revenge, power and money.
The businessman, Hisham Talaat Moustafa, was a multimillionaire who seemed to have it all. He headed a real estate conglomerate, was a member of the upper house of Parliament and had close ties to the family of President Hosni Mubarak. He was part of the most elite strata of Egyptian society, a high roller of the type that Egyptians have long assumed to operate beyond the reach of the law.
Then Suzanne Tamim was found dead in July, slashed and stabbed in her apartment in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. She was 30, a pop diva and, it was charged, had fled from a failed relationship with Mr. Moustafa.
When rumors first spread of Mr. Moustafa’s links to the killing, Egypt’s leadership appeared to react instinctively, closing ranks to protect one of its own. But Egyptians have been growing increasingly frustrated with two scales of justice, one for the poor and one for the rich, political commentators here said. And there was pressure from Dubai, which was unwilling to let a murderer walk, no matter how rich and connected.
In the hours after the sentence was announced, it seemed as though Mr. Moustafa was all people could talk about in Cairo. People were astounded, and pleased, at the rare fall from grace.
“There is a fundamental element missing in the political system here, and this is the element of trust, the ability of the people to trust that their regime is just,” said Osama Ghazali Harb, an editor and researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “This verdict can bring citizens to have some trust in the judiciary, and it can have a positive outcome for the regime because people don’t trust it in general.”
Mr. Moustafa’s fate was sealed with a quick reading of the verdict. A little after 9 a.m. Judge Muhammadi Qunsuwa entered a run-down, litter-strewn courtroom in the center of Cairo. He said that the case would be referred to the nation’s highest religious official. It was instantly understood that that meant the death penalty.
Mr. Moustafa showed no emotion.
He stood in a prisoner’s cage, a black box of bars and metal mesh about seven feet tall. He wore a white prison jumpsuit and turned his back to the crush of journalists and family and friends who had crowded the room. The man who prosecutors say he hired, Mohsen al-Sukari, was in the cage next to him, reading the Koran.
He received a death sentence, too.
Mr. Moustafa was hustled out of the courtroom as the crowd surged toward the prisoner’s cage. Friends and family members cried out in shock, while his wife collapsed. A young man fainted and was carried out on an officer’s shoulder.
Mr. Sukari turned pale, crossed his arms over his chest and mumbled to himself before being taken away.
Under Egyptian law, the country’s chief religious official, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, must review all death sentences. His decision will be handed down next month, but experts here said there was no reason to expect that he would overrule the judge.
Mr. Moustafa’s lawyers also said they would appeal the verdict and sentence, which under Egyptian law are delivered simultaneously.
The case of Mr. Moustafa and Ms. Tamim grabbed public attention because of the spectacular characters, and the locales involved: Dubai, the fast-moving emirate in the Persian Gulf with influence far beyond its size; and Egypt, the floundering, crisis-prone state where power and money often buy immunity from the law.
Egyptian officials were keen to point to the verdict on Thursday as proof that there is rule of law in Egypt, and that even someone as influential as Mr. Moustafa could be forced to pay the ultimate penalty for his crime.
Ms. Tamim was murdered in Dubai, but Egypt does not allow its citizens to be extradited, so the trial took place here. In the beginning, it appeared that Mr. Moustafa would benefit from his social and political standing. Courts ordered that the case not be covered in the press, and Mr. Moustafa retained his parliamentary immunity.
But that changed, a result, some say, of pressure from the United Arab Emirates and a need to calm local hostility toward Egypt’s elite. There was outrage earlier this year when a court initially acquitted another important businessman in connection with the deaths of about 1,000 people when a ferry he owned sank.
Mr. Moustafa was arrested in September and charged with paying $2 million to Mr. Sukari, a former police officer who had worked in security at a hotel Mr. Moustafa owned.
Mr. Moustafa, who was 49 at the time of his arrest, had an estimated net worth of $800 million in 2007. He was one of Egypt’s largest real estate developers and a member of Mr. Mubarak’s governing National Democratic Party.
Ms. Tamim became famous after winning the regional equivalent of “American Idol,” called Studio Al Fann. Her career took off but her personal life was plagued by failed relationships, and when she moved to Cairo she was entangled in a bitter divorce from her second husband.
She met Mr. Moustafa after her move. He offered to help revive her career and then, according to news media reports, they became romantically involved.
But she evidently tired of him and eventually moved to Dubai and married a kickboxing champion.
Prosecutors charged that Mr. Moustafa was enraged and hired Mr. Sukari, who was arrested in Egypt shortly after the killing at the request of the authorities in the Emirates.
When the case first came to public attention in Egypt, the authorities tried to keep the details secret, a move widely interpreted as a signal that someone connected was involved.
But in the end, commentators here said Egypt’s leaders decided that the political costs of protecting Mr. Moustafa were too steep, so they decided in this instance to allow the law to be applied without interference.
“The general guiding rule is the interest of the regime,” said Belal Fadl, a columnist with the independent newspaper Al Masry al Yom. “At this particular moment, the regime’s interest is to prove to people here and to the outside world that it is not a corrupt system.”
Mr. Moustafa saw it differently. In a letter written from his jail cell before his trial, he insisted that he was innocent and that he was the victim of jealousy because of his success.
“I keep asking myself every moment in my cell: Why is this happening to me?” he wrote. “Why am I facing all this distortion and destruction and lies that nobody faced before? Why is this happening to me, while everyone knows who I am and how I am disciplined, serious and committed to my faith and my duties towards God?”
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting.