Talaat Moustafa spared death sentence in earlier-than-expected ruling

The complicated legal saga of billionaire businessman Hisham Talaat Moustafa took a new turn on Tuesday when a court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for ordering the murder of his former lover, Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim.

Mohsen Sukkari, a former Egyptian police officer, was convicted of carrying out the murder in exchange for a US$2 million payoff from Moustafa and sentenced to life in prison.

Tamim, 30, was founded stabbed to death in a luxury Dubai apartment in July 2008. Sukkari was arrested soon after, leading to a rapid and dramatic fall from grace for Moustafa–one of Egypt’s most prominent and politically-connected business tycoons.

Moustafa was a member of parliament for the ruling National Democratic Party and is regarded as being close to the president’s influential son, Gamal Mubarak.

When the allegations first came to light after Sukkari's arrest in Cairo following the murder, Moustafa was stripped of his parliamentary immunity and forced to resign as head of the Talaat Moustafa Group (TMG), one of Egypt’s largest land development companies.

A May 2009 death sentence handed down to both men was overturned by an appeals court earlier this year on procedural grounds, leading to the just-concluded retrial.

The new trial upheld both convictions. Judge Adel Abdel Salaam Gomaa, however, opted for reduced sentences without providing a public explanation for the move.

Under the Egyptian legal system, prison years are only nine-months long, meaning that–with time served and good behavior–Moustafa could be a free man in less than a decade.

The reduced sentence for such a prominent friend of the regime seems likely to fuel accusations by government critics of a politically-motivated sentence, especially since Gomaa issued the ruling before hearing all the witnesses or the defense team's closing arguments.

The choice of Judge Gomaa for the retrial also raised concerns over the possible manipulation of the judicial process for political ends. Analysts point out that the judge has a record of issuing decisions that favored the government.

Moustafa’s lawyer, Bahaa Abu Shaqa, however, said the verdict should be invalidated for violating the Code of Criminal Procedure by failing to hear out the defense. “It's a first in the history of the judiciary,” he said.

A judicial source told Al-Masry Al-Youm that the reason the defendants received prison sentences had been due to the fact that the victim’s family had dropped their civil claim in the case.

The court will reveal the reasons for the reduced verdicts within the next 30 days, the same source said. The source also pointed out that both the prosecution and the two defendants had the right to file an appeal and request a retrial.

In the event that the appeals court accepts the defendants' appeal while rejecting that filed by prosecutors, the defendants will not receive harsher verdicts than those issued Tuesday. However, if the appeal filed by the prosecution is accepted by the court, then a retrial will be held–possibly resulting in a tougher verdict.

According to the judicial source, the appeal must be lodged within two months of notification of the court’s decision.

Nasser Amin, head of the Cairo-based Center for the Independence of the Judiciary, said there were no procedural problems with the court’s verdict.

“Legally, it’s okay,” Amin said. "The judge used his authority properly."

A key element of the new verdict, Amin said, was the lack of opposition from Tamim’s family in Lebanon. Earlier this year, the family dropped a suit it had filed against Moustafa amid widespread speculation of a multi-million dollar compensation package.

“If the family was adamantly demanding its rights, I believe the court would have again issued the death penalty,” Amin said.

In any event, the verdict has had a positive impact on Egypt’s stock market. On Tuesday, TMG shares rose by 2.3 percent, making the company the day's strongest performer.

Experts believe the government is keen to prop up the market value of TMG, in whose flagship project–the Madinaty land development scheme–it enjoys a 7-percent stake.

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