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Egyptian tycoon sentenced to hang for singer's murder

Billionaire hired hitman to kill ex-lover after she turned down his marriage proposal

A murder mystery that began last year with the discovery of a Lebanese pop star stabbed to death in her Dubai apartment ended in a courtroom in Cairo yesterday with a death sentence for one of Egypt's richest and most influential men.

There was pandemonium in the court when Hisham Talaat Moustafa was sentenced to hang for paying an employee $2m (£1.25m) to murder his estranged lover, Suzanne Tamim. The killer, Muhsin Sukkari, who had worked for Moustafa at one of his hotels, was also sentenced to death.

The uproar that followed the verdict was in keeping with a murder that has gripped the Middle East, sometimes resembling a gaudy Egyptian soap opera. Moustafa's relatives jostled with photographers trying to snap the tycoon seated inside a metal cage in a white jumpsuit.

Some of his female relatives cried out, while others fainted.

The verdict was greeted with shock in the country at large, where members of the ruling elite are commonly thought to be above the law.

Moustafa is a well-connected billionaire businessman. He is a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, with a seat in the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament, and he is a personal friend of the Egyptian President's son, Gamal Mubarak. The prosecution asserted that Ms Tamim was stabbed to death in her luxury apartment by a hitman sent by the Egyptian tycoon.

The court heard how Sukkari, a former policeman who had worked as a security man, had tricked his way into the 30-year-old's luxury apartment and had killed her with multiple blows to her face and throat.

Moustafa, 60, who ran Egypt's largest real estate group, reportedly ordered the killing after having his proposal of marriage rejected.

Media reports in Lebanon have since linked the singer to a kickboxer, Riyad al-Azawi, with whom she was apparently planning to move in.

Ms Tamim, who shot to fame after winning Lebanon's version of Pop Idol in 1996, was almost as well known for her troubled personal life as her music, with two failed marriages behind her. The killer's mistake was to leave a shoe print at the scene which was traced first to a Dubai shoe shop and from there to the former policeman's home. Police were able to identify the suspect from security camera footage and DNA tests on blood on his clothes.

The breakthrough to the man who was found to have ordered the killing was made after police were given recordings of telephone conversations between Moustafa and his hitman.

Transcripts of these have been printed in the Egyptian press, and show the tycoon had asked for the killing to be made to look like an accident, as had happened with the killing of another Egyptian billionaire in London.

"The best solution is for her to be thrown from the balcony, like what happened with Ashraf Marwan in London," says the voice, claimed to belong to Moustafa. "The agreed-upon amount is ready. She is in London... deal with it."

Sukhari replied: "The place for it to be carried out has moved to Dubai... the matter needs careful preparation... she has many people around her."

Friends and relatives of the dead woman expressed their relief at the sentences handed down.

"I knew the girl since she was a child and she used to play with my kids, so I am satisfied with the verdict," a former neighbour, Sami al-Labban, told Reuters. "God have mercy on her. She did a lot of charity work."

Samir al-Shishtawi, a lawyer for the defence, called the ruling "severe" and said he expected it would be overturned on appeal. It still faces review by a top Muslim religious figure. "It is a ruling aimed at deterrence more than at implementing the law," he said.