- Associated Press
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian real estate tycoon accused of hiring a hitman to kill his pop star lover was spared the death penalty Tuesday after a retrial changed his original sentence to 15 years in prison.

The reduced sentence of Hisham Talaat Moustafa, a prominent member of Egypt’s ruling party, for the brutal murder of a Lebanese singer is likely to spark new accusations of political influence. Moustafa, the builder behind the luxury suburbs for the rich that now ring impoverished Cairo, was close to the powerful son of Egypt’s president and has come to symbolize the close bond between businessmen and politicians in recent years.

The judge convicted Moustafa for conspiracy to murder of 30-year-old Suzanne Tamim and gave him 15 years in prison. The timing of the verdict came as a surprise because there had been no indication the retrial was ending and the defense still had more witnesses.

The real estate tycoon was sentenced to death in May 2009 after being convicted of paying a retired Egyptian police officer $2 million to kill Ms. Tamim while she was in Dubai in July 2008. The court in March overturned the conviction on procedural grounds and ordered a retrial.

The sentence for the man actually convicted of killing Ms. Tamim, Mohsen el-Sukkary, was also reduced to just life in prison, which is 25 years under the Egyptian penal code. He was also given three years for weapons possession.

Prison years, under the Egyptian system are nine months long, meaning that Moustafa could be released in just a few years, counting time served and good behavior.

The sentences can still be appealed by the defendants, the prosecutor or Ms. Tamim’s family. In May, it was widely reported in the Arab media that Moustafa had agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to Ms. Tamim’s family.

The initial allegations shocked Egyptians unused to seeing powerful politicians perceived as untouchable taken to court, and the new lighter sentences raised charges that Moustafa’s influence kept him from the gallows.

“This is the result of the marriage between the regime and the wealthy,” said Abdullah el-Sinnawi, the editor of the opposition Al-Arabi newspaper. “The regime wants to protect its people.”

The company he once headed, the Talaat Moustafa Group, is Egypt’s largest publicly traded property developer. TMG has been in the spotlight recently after a court annuled its purchase of a 13-square-mile plot of desert land for a luxury gated community because it was not done in an open auction.

The case surrounding the Madinaty project became symbolic of the sweetheart deals that critics say are common between the government and businessmen, an impression deepened when the government stepped in and re-awarded the disputed land to TMG to avoid eroding international investor confidence in Egypt.

The decision was seen by some critics as another example of the ability of wealthy businessmen to steer contracts in their favor in a country that for years has focused its attention on luring in foreign investors and growing its private sector.

The company’s stock price on the Egyptian bourse immediately rose more than 1 percent on the news of the lighter sentences.

The Moustafa-Tamim affair began in 2004, when the two met at a Red Sea resort, according to transcripts of Moustafa’s interrogation that were widely published in Egyptian newspapers. Ms. Tamim, who rose to stardom in the late 1990s, had sought his help to divorce from her husband, according to media reports.

During interrogations, Moustafa said he broke up with Ms. Tamim after his mother opposed the couple’s marriage plan.

Dubai investigators claimed el-Sukkary followed Ms. Tamim to her apartment in the swanky Dubai Marina complex and entered using an ID of the management company from which she had recently bought her place. Blood-soaked clothes were found dumped outside the building.

El-Sukkary was arrested in August 2008 in Egypt. Moustafa was arrested in September of the same year.

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