Al-Ahram Weekly Online   28 May - 3 June 2009
Issue No. 949
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

To be continued

Hisham Talaat Mustafa has been found guilty of conspiracy to murder. But the case, says his lawyer, is not over yet. Shaden Shehab reports

Hisham Talaat Mustafa

"The court orders the files of the two defendants, Hisham Talaat Mustafa and Mohsen El-Sukkari, to be referred to the grand mufti."

So ended the first stage -- at least -- of one of Egypt's most sensational criminal cases for a generation. The implication of the judge's ruling was lost on no one in the packed Bab Al-Khalq Criminal Court on Thursday. In Egypt defendants' files are referred to the grand mufti for review in the case of death sentences. The mufti is scheduled to make his own ruling on 25 June.

Billionaire business tycoon Mustafa had been found guilty of conspiring to kill Lebanese pop singer Suzanne Tamim. Former State Security officer El-Sukkari was found guilty of committing the grisly murder.

Yet according to Farid El-Deeb, Mustafa's lawyer, the case is far from over. During an interview on Egyptian state television El-Deeb not only expressed his dismay at the verdict but claimed the judge, Mohamedi Qonsowa, was ineligible to hear the case because of reasons he will include in his reasons for contesting the ruling.

It is now up to the Court of Cassation to either refuse the grounds for an appeal and uphold the ruling or order a retrial.

Mustafa, a hugely wealthy property magnate, was a member of the Policies Committee of the ruling National Democratic Party, deputy chairman of the Shura Council's Economic Committee, and is said to have been close to Gamal Mubarak, President Hosni Mubarak's son. Seldom has someone so close to the centre of power faced capital punishment following a criminal case. Given the widespread belief that the rich and powerful can literally get away with murder, the sentence has both appeased and surprised the public.

Given the blanket ban on media coverage during the trial, post verdict the media is having a field day. The inevitable conspiracy theories are now circulating. Was Mustafa guilty or was he framed? One theory has it that former state security officer El-Sukkari could not have been so naïve as to go to the pop star's apartment knowing that he would be caught on CCTV, or so stupid as to throw away clothes stained with the victim's blood, and the murder weapon, just metres from the scene of the crime. He must have been ordered by someone else to kill Tamim and frame Mustafa, argue the conspiracy theorists, though they have yet to come up with a plausible explanation of why El-Sukkari should have put his own neck on the line in the process.

Tamim was murdered on 28 July in an exclusive residential compound in Dubai. El-Sukkari accused Mustafa, then chairman of the Talaat Mustafa Group, of paying him $2 million for the contract killing. The billionaire was arrested on 2 September, following the lifting of his parliamentary immunity. The trial opened on 18 October last year, exciting media frenzy across the Middle East.

The evidence included tape recordings of telephone conversations between Mustafa and El-Sukkari, security video footage from the Dubai apartment and DNA from the bloodied clothes El-Sukkari is accused of leaving close to the scene of the crime.

Mustafa is said to have taken out the contract on Tamim's life after she ended a three-year affair.

The prosecution alleged El-Sukkari bought a knife then headed to Tamim's apartment at the Jumeira Beach Residence complex. Disguised as a worker belonging to the apartment's service company he showed Tamim a false ID over the video intercom and she let him in. Once inside her flat he knocked her to the floor and cut her throat. El-Sukkari then threw his bloodstained clothes in a trash can next to the fire escape below Tamim's apartment and left the building. Dubai police found little difficulty in collecting DNA samples from the abandoned clothes. Pictures of El-Sukkari were captured on the building's CCTV cameras.

As the verdict was announced Mustafa remained expressionless. Mustafa's two daughters burst into tears and his sister fainted. Dozens of cameramen and journalists hurried towards the caged dock, jockeying for position, before more policemen surrounded Mustafa and he was escorted from the court.

El-Sukkari's relatives attacked journalists both verbally and physically.

"Get out you bunch of worthless people living on people's miseries," one of them said as he pushed a female journalist to the floor and punched a TV broadcaster. Policemen ordered everyone to leave the courtroom immediately.

The ruling was announced at 9am. Inside the courtroom security was tight. Cell phones were not allowed. Journalists, many of whom had been waiting since dawn to enter the court building, were searched three times before being allowed in. Mustafa and El-Sukkari sat in separate, caged docks.

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