CAIRO — An Egyptian court on Thursday ordered the retrial of a real estate mogul sentenced to death for hiring a hit man to murder his former lover, a Lebanese pop star, in a case that has put a spotlight on the political power of wealthy businessmen with links to the government in Egypt.
Hisham Talaat Moustafa, 50, one of the country's wealthiest businessmen, was convicted last May of paying a retired Egyptian police officer $2 million to kill 30-year-old Suzanne Tamim while she was in Dubai in July 2008.
The Court of Cassation, Egypt's highest court of appeal, overturned the conviction of Moustafa and the ex-police officer Mohsen el-Sukkary on Thursday, meaning the two will face a new trial at an unspecified date. The announcement prompted cheers and clapping from the billionaire tycoon's supporters in and outside the packed downtown courtroom.
The initial allegations shocked Egyptians unused to seeing powerful politicians perceived as untouchables taken to court, and Thursday's decision was certain to raise charges that Moustafa's influence will keep him from the gallows.
The case also was another example of the use of omnipresent surveillance cameras in Dubai to make it increasingly difficult for suspected criminals to escape – something that was highlighted when authorities spotted an assassination team allegedly sent by Israel's spy agency to kill a Hamas commander in January.
Israel has refused to confirm or deny that Mossad was behind the assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, the Hamas commander. Dubai has identified at least 26 suspects in the case.
But in Egypt's case, the Dubai connection put pressure on the government to try Moustafa despite his close ties to the centers of power. Experts say the discovery of another high-profile crime in Dubai will make it harder for Moustafa's defense team to challenge the evidence backed by new technology.
Dubai police said the face of Tamim's killer was caught on security cameras, and the footage was shown during the initial trial, which was held under a gag order.
Judge Adel Abdel Hamid, who leads the 11-member appeals panel, said only that the court had accepted the defense request for a retrial on the basis of procedure and content but was not more specific.
A lower court will later decide when the retrial will take place. Lawyers say it could be as soon as two months from now. Experts say it is customary in cases involving death sentences to give the defendants a second chance.
Defense lawyers argued, among other things, that the evidence was insufficient to implicate their clients.
Anis al-Mannawi, who is representing el-Sukkary, said his team asked Egyptian court officials to go to Dubai and inspect the crime scene. He also demanded that Dubai police hand over all recordings by security cameras of his client.
"We think that these (security camera) images were tampered with," he said after the verdict. "We asked for the originals. We didn't get the originals. We want to see the reasons why we are on trial."
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. 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 his former lover Tamim after his mother opposed the couple's marriage plan. Moustafa, who is already married, comes from a religiously conservative Muslim family.
Dubai investigators claimed el-Sukkary followed 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.
Moustafa, a member of parliament's upper house, the Shura Council, also was a member the ruling party's policies committee, which is chaired by Mubarak's son, Gamal.
The tycoon heads one of the country's main real estate companies, a family-run business, that continues to flourish despite the trial. He is also cherished by a number of Egyptians who see him as a businessman that spent generously on charity, funded a hospital in his hometown Alexandria and families in need.
Pro-government newspapers have defended him as a national hero.
Still, Gamal Fahmy, a columnist and government critic, said the government is unlikely to directly interfere in such a high-profile trial involving "Money, power, sex, all capped by a cross-border James Bond adventure that ends with the murder of his lover."
"The government was forced to stay clear from going down that path from the start because the pressure from the Emirates," he said. "But the unholy marriage between power and wealth still stands."