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Middle east

Lebanese diva's murder case puts justice on trial

Text by Leela JACINTO

Latest update : 2010-02-04

When Egyptian tycoon Hisham Moustafa (left) was sentenced to death for Lebanese diva Suzanne Tamim's (right) murder, it sent shockwaves across the region. But now an appeals process could reopen a sensational case.

It has been dubbed one of the Arab world’s most high-profile crimes of passion, a sensational – and grisly – murder involving a glamorous Lebanese pop star and an Egyptian billionaire-politician that has exposed the dark side of life in the fast lane among the region’s elites.

On May 21 2009, an Egyptian court sentenced Hisham Talaat Moustafa, a property magnate and former member of Egypt’s ruling party, to death for the killing of his ex-girlfriend, Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim.

The court found Moustafa guilty of paying $2 million to a former Egyptian policeman to kill Tamim. Mohsen Sukkari, the former policeman-turned hired hitman, was found guilty of slitting the Lebanese diva’s throat in her plush Dubai apartment and was also sentenced to death.

The ruling was hailed as a powerful signal across the region that, contrary to popular belief, the rich and powerful are not above the law.

But nearly nine months after the dramatic verdict, closure in one of Egypt’s most sensational murder trials has not been achieved. On Thursday, an Egyptian appeals court postponed its ruling on the appeals by Moustafa and Sukkari till March 4.
The postponement came after a more than six-hour session Thursday that was expected to lead to a decision on whether to accept the appeal requests.

A rejection of the appeals would pave the way for execution while an acceptance would result in a retrial.

‘Gamal’s cabal’ and the rise of a new business class

For many Egyptians, the verdict of the appeals court represents a litmus test of the country’s judicial independence. Few believe that a man as powerful as Mustafa, who has close ties to President Hosni Mubarak, will face the gallows.

“There has been some speculation that if Hisham Talaat Moustafa is granted an appeal - and in Egypt, the legal process takes a long time – that, over time, he might be released or his sentence will be commuted,” said Issandr El Amrani, a Cairo-based policy analyst.

During the trial last year, the sight of one of the country’s most powerful businessmen appearing in court in a prison-issue white shirt and dark trousers presented a riveting spectacle for the average Egyptian.

A property developer whose estates include Cairo’s sumptuous Four Seasons Hotel on the west bank of the Nile, Moustafa is a prominent member of a business elite whose fortunes have risen with that of Gamal Mubarak, the Egyptian president’s son and likely political heir.

Before he was stripped off his parliamentary immunity, Moustafa was a member of a powerful committee in the ruling National Democratic Party that oversaw the appointment of prominent businessmen into cabinet positions. Critics have dubbed this circle “Gamal’s cabal” and its members are known as “the businessmen’s cabinet”

A case that shook – and incensed – Dubai

While the May 21 ruling was hailed as a triumph of justice, many Egyptians believe the Dubai authorities played a critical role in putting pressure – and the international spotlight – on the case.

Shortly after Tamim’s body was discovered lying in a pool of blood at the entrance to her Jumeirah Beach Residence apartment on July 28, 2008, the sensational murder hit the headlines, with investigators rapidly uncovering leads in the investigation.

During the trial last year, the prosecution’s evidence included CCTV footage from the apartment block, taped telephone recordings of conversations between Moustafa and Sukkary, as well as DNA samples collected from the hired hitman’s bloodied clothes near the crime site.

“I definitely think that the way the government of Dubai made this quite a prominent case and released all the information made it a very difficult case to ignore,” said El Amrani. “There may have been a diplomatic element to this. The government of Dubai was probably incensed that a prominent Egyptian with ties to the (Egyptian) president, had done this in Dubai with the help of a former Egyptian policeman.”

Lawyers representing Moustafa have however maintained that the Dubai police investigation was flawed. Should an appeal be allowed, the defense team is expected to argue that the May 21 ruling followed an excessive reliance, by the court, on evidence from the Dubai Police’s investigators and forensic science experts.

For the moment, all eyes are set on the March 4 ruling that will decide if Moustafa will have another day in another court. If he loses the appeal the once powerful Egyptian tycoon can appeal directly to the prosecutor general or to the president. The prospect of the latter has already sent the nation’s rumour mill into a spin.

Date created : 2010-02-04