Egyptian tycoon pleads 'not guilty'

Hisham Talaat Moustafa pleaded not guilty to involvement in the brutal slaying of the Lebanese pop singer who jilted him.

The Egyptian tycoon Hisham Talaat Moustafa, charged with paying for the murder of Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim, sits inside the defendants' cage during his trial at a court in Cairo on Oct 18 2008.
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CAIRO // With a mixture of theatre and a sense of the historic, Hesham Talaat Moustafa, an Egyptian billionaire and senior member of Egypt's ruling party, and Mohsen el Sokari, a former Egyptian state security officer, pleaded not guilty yesterday in connection with murdering Suzanne Tamim, the Lebanese pop singer in Dubai last summer. In a trial steeped in symbolism, Mr Moustafa, one of Egypt's most powerful barons, is charged with paying Mr Sokari US$2 million (Dh7.34m) to murder Tamim, which, it is alleged, happened after Tamim had ended a relationship with Mr Moustafa. Tamim was found dead in her apartment at Dubai's beachfront Jumeira Beach Residence on July 28, with multiple stab wounds and a 20-centimetre slash across her throat. "It didn't happen; I swear to God I'm innocent," Mr Sokari said in response to the judge who asked him directly if he had killed her. "It didn't happen your honour," said Mr Moustafa in response to the same question. "I presented all the evidence to the opposite of that," he said. "I leave the matter in God's hands." The fact that such a powerful member of the government could be brought to trial has captivated Egyptians increasingly frustrated by rampant government corruption and inequality. Dressed in white overalls and locked in a metal cage inside the court room, the men represented opposite ends of Egypt's political and economic spectrum, one a mercurial party boss seen once as untouchable, the other a former policeman who was a cog in the country's security apparatus. Mr Moustafa, 48, a real estate magnate, sat for most of the hearing, while Mr Sokari remained standing; the two avoided looking at each another for most of the session. They had not seen each other since their arrests and have been kept in two different prisons, under tight security, amid reported fears that Mr Sokari may seek to commit suicide or perhaps even be killed. The prosecution presented the judge with evidence against the men, including Tamim's white trousers, a Swiss army knife, a fingerprint report, a DNA test, security camera tapes and transcripts of phone conversations between the two men alleged to be discussing the murder. The prosecution is expected to present a dozen witnesses, including members of the Dubai police force. Mr Moustafa has been in custody since he was arrested on Sept 2 when Egypt's general prosecutor stripped him of his parliamentary immunity. Lawyers for Mr Moustafa requested he be released pending the outcome, but the judge overruled the motion. "This is very dangerous not only for the defendant but also his 11 companies ... and the 60,000 employees and workers who work for him," said Hafez Farhoud, one of Mr Moustafa's lawyers. His alleged accomplice, Mr Sokari, initially confessed to killing Tamim on Mr Moustafa's orders, according to Abdel Meguid Mahmoud, the prosecutor. As if to add to the spectacle, the trial's first hearing was held in the Sadat courtroom, named after the assassinated Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, which was hastily painted in preparation for the trial and emptied of many of its wooden benches, presumably to maximise the space for viewers in the room. Just a few journalists, many of whom waited outside the court room overnight were allowed in, and only after hours of pleading with security men to allow them access. According to Dubai police investigators, Mr Sokari followed the singer into her apartment at JBR on the morning of July 28. From the lobby, he rang her video intercom, presenting identification of the management company from which she had recently purchased the flat and she buzzed him in, police say. Once inside, he is alleged to have stabbed her repeatedly with a knife, then shed his overalls and cap, dumping them in a rubbish bin on the floor below Tamim's apartment. Police recovered the clothes and collected DNA samples from them and also captured Mr Sokari's face on security cameras. Egypt's public prosecutor has accused Mr Moustafa of having Tamim killed "for revenge" after she ended their relationship. The prosecutor said the tycoon helped facilitate visas and tickets for Mr Sokari as he trailed the singer first to London, then to Dubai. The indictment said Mr Moustafa "took part through incitement, agreement and assistance with the first defendant [Mr Sokari] in killing the victim in revenge". The evidence includes tape recordings of telephone calls between Mr Moustafa and Mr Sokari. The case has gripped Egypt and the Middle East. Tamim's slaying and the alleged involvement of someone like Mr Moustafa shocked the public as the well-known businessman was close to Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, and his son Gamal, whose wedding last year was held at one of the hotels - the Four Seasons - owned by Mr Moustafa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh. Mr Sokari was the security manager of that hotel. "The trial of money and power," read yesterday's headline in Al Masry Al Youm, an independent Egyptian daily newspaper. Tamim was discovered by a Lebanese talent company in 1996, but her troubled personal life began overshadowing her career. She had moved to Dubai, friends say, to break off her relationship with Mr Moustafa, who is married to two women. Her second husband, Adel Maatouq, who claimed he was still married to her at the time of her death, helped her get a divorce from her first husband, Ali Mezner. However, she left Mr Maatouq and went to Egypt where she met with Mr Moustafa, who allegedly began helping her to get a divorce from Mr Maatouq. The latter filed several lawsuits against her, barring her from singing and demanding she return to Lebanon, amid reports of a secretive marriage taking place between Tamim and Mr Moustafa, after she presented a forged divorce document, according to Mr Maatouq. However, she then left Mr Moustafa, moving first to London where she met Riyadh al Azzawi, a British kickboxer of Iraqi origin, who also claims he was her husband at the time of her death. Mr Maatouq was represented at the court by two Egyptian lawyers as was Mr Azzawi, who had a team of several lawyers, including two British and one Emirati. Abdel-Sattar Tamim, the singer's father, was also represented at yesterday's trial. None of the men were present in court, while Tamim's lawyer, Samir al Sheshtawi, distributed a statement in court claiming that the father was banned from entering Egypt. Mr Moustafa, who was born in 1959, transferred the chairmanship of the Talaat Moustafa Group to his brother, Tarek, after his arrest. His company, Madinaty is estimated to be worth billions of dollars.