A once powerful and wealthy 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 New York Times reported.
Hisham Talaat Moustafa was the cliché, the multi-millionaire 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 of Hosni Mubarak.
Then Suzanne Tamim was found dead in July, slashed and stabbed in her apartment in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. She was 30, a pop diva, and, it was charged, had fled from a failed relationship with Mr. Moustafa.
At a little after 9 a.m. on Thursday, Judge Muhammadi Qunsuwa entered a rundown, litter-strewn courtroom in the center of Cairo. He read a one-line verdict. It was death.
Mr. Moustafa showed no emotion.
He stood in a prisoners’ 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 prosecutors say he hired, Mohsen al-Sukary, was in the cage next to him, reading the Koran.
He received the death sentence, too.
Mr. Moustafa was hustled out of the courtroom amid tight security. The crowd charged in toward the prisoners’ cage. There were cries of shock from his friends and family. Mr. Moustafa’s wife collapsed in the courtroom and a young man fell unconscious and fainted, and was carried out on an officer’s shoulder..
Mr. Sukary 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 finalized next month, but there is no reason to expect it will be overruled, experts here said.
The case of Mr. Moustafa and Ms. Tamim grabbed public attention because of the spectacular characters, both in Mr. Moustafa and Ms. Tamim — and in the locales involved: Dubai, the fast moving emirate in the Gulf with influence far beyond its size, and Egypt, the floundering crisis-plagued state where power and money often buy immunity from the law.
Egyptian officials were keen to point to the verdict Thursday as proof that there is rule of law in Egypt and that even someone as influential as Mr. Moustafa would be forced to pay the ultimate penalty for his crime.
“There are no pressures on the Egyptian judiciary,” said Ismail el-Shaer, head of Cairo security, as he stood outside the courthouse, smiling. “If there was any pressure, then this would not have been the verdict. If there was pressure, then they would have at least been susceptible to domestic pressure because he is an influential man.”
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 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, as well as a need to calm local hostility toward Egypt’s elite, of which Mr. Moustafa was a key figure. There was outrage earlier this year when a court initially acquitted another equally connected businessman in connection with the death of about 1,000 people when a ferry he owned sank.
“The regime has been subjected to a lot of pressure and needs to gain back some trust so they left the court alone and did not intervene,” said Osama el-Ghazali Harb, a political analyst. “This is why the sentence seemed very logical, at least in as far as the public could tell from the information they had about the case.”
Mr. Moustafa was arrested in September and charged with paying $2 million to Mr. Sukary, a former police officer who had worked in security at a hotel owned by Mr. Moustafa.
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 President Mubarak’s governing National Democratic Party.
Ms. Tamim became famous after winning the equivalent of a regional American Idol show 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 case.
Ms. Tamim met Mr. Moustafa after her move to Cairo. He offered to help her get her career back on track and then, according to media reports around the region, they became romantically involved.
She eventually moved to Dubai and married someone else.
Prosecutors charged that Mr. Moustafa was enraged and hired Mr. Sukary, 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, authorities tried to keep the details of the case secret — which was widely interpreted as a signal that someone connected was involved, and was being protected.
But in the end, commentators here said that Egypt’s leadership decided that protecting Mr. Moustafa came at their own expense. So they allowed the law to be applied without interference. That is how often works in Egypt, where there are laws, but it is never clear when they will be enforced, political analysts here said.
“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 he was innocent and that he was the victim of jealously 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?”
The final decision of the grand mufti is scheduled to be announced June 25th.