CAIRO // She was, first and foremost, a singer. But in death as in life, it was the sideshow of her private life that drew the greatest interest; in 2008, the murder of Suzanne Tamim was one of the search terms most Googled in the Arab world. Tamim, 30 when she died, launched her singing career in Lebanon in 1996 after winning the Lebanese television talent competition Studio al Phan. At a New Year's Eve party in 2005 she met and began a fateful relationship with Hisham Talaat Moustafa, the former chairman of the Talaat Moustafa Group, Egypt's largest real estate developer, and a US dollar billionaire.
By 2007 the affair was over. Tamim left Cairo for London and started dating Riyadh al Azzawi, an Iraqi-British kickboxer who now claims to have been her husband. The couple bought an apartment in the Rimal complex at Jumeirah Beach Residence in Dubai. Early last summer, Tamim moved in at the start of what should have been a new life but, 10 days later, on July 28, she was killed. The body was discovered almost 12 hours later by her cousin, Mahmoud el Arnaout. Having tried all day to reach her on her mobile phone, he went to the apartment on the 22nd floor. He found the door open, with Tamim lying dead at the entrance. Her throat had been cut and she was lying in a pool of blood, her bruised body covered by a sheet.
Suspicion fell quickly on Mohsen el Sokari, a 40-year-old former Egyptian state security officer whose face had been captured on security cameras. For a supposed professional hit man who had been paid US$2 million (Dh7.3m), the assailant's attempts to cover his trail were amateurish. Within hours of being called to the crime scene, Dubai Police found a blood-stained T-shirt and a pair of black jogging bottoms dumped in a rubbish bin on the floor below Tamim's. Giving evidence at the trial in December, Farida el Shemali, an Emirati DNA specialist, told the court she had taken samples from Tamim's body and the bloodstains on the floor of her apartment. Traces of the victim's blood and of el Sokari's DNA were found on the recovered clothing.
Using a serial number on the jogging bottoms, police traced them to the Mercato Mall on Jumeirah Beach Road, where they found that el Sokari had used his MasterCard to buy them, along with a T-shirt, a pair of Nike shoes and a buck knife, the day before the murder. During the trial, the court watched hours of videotape, recorded by surveillance cameras. El Sokari was seen entering Tamim's building via the parking garage at 8.48am and leaving 12 minutes later. Although still wearing the same black cap he had on when he arrived, he had changed his clothes and was wearing a black T-shirt, white shorts and white Nike shoes. The pattern on the sole was found in patches of blood left by the killer between floors as he fled. The two sets of clothing were on show in the court at the start of the trial on October 18.
The cameras followed el Sokari as he left the building by the beachfront door and headed back to the nearby Oasis hotel, where he had been staying. Again, cameras picked him up checking out and, at 9.30am, less than an hour after he entered Tamim's apartment block, he was filmed taking a taxi to the airport. Within hours of the murder he had flown from Dubai back to Egypt. He was not at liberty for long. On August 6, just over a week after the killing, he was arrested on board a restaurant boat on the Nile. His story was inconsistent from the outset. He denied the killing, but then told police where he had hidden the money.
According to hundreds of pages of hand-written investigation notes and other case documents seen by The National, el Sokari told the police that Moustafa, married with three sons, had been asking him to get rid of Tamim, whom he called his "secret wife". He admitted to having visited the singer but denied he had done so on the day of the killing. At first, he said he had been delivering a picture frame filled with cocaine and a forged thank-you letter from the owner of her building.
But then, in the presence of his lawyers, he changed his statement, saying he had given her the frame but without putting drugs in it. Furthermore, he said, he had lied to Moustafa, making him believe that he had killed Tamim. Apparently, the original idea was an agreement between the two defendants to give the frame to the singer, loaded with cocaine, and then inform police. El Sokari and his lawyers tried to persuade the court that the visit took place on August 24, not the day of the killing, to justify why he appeared on surveillance footage, and they were trying to say that Dubai authorities had changed the dates.
El Sokari claimed Moustafa had tried to get him to kill the singer in London last May, securing him a visa and £20,000 (Dh115,000). The plan was to throw Tamim from her balcony to make her death look like suicide. The plot failed; el Sokari told police he had never intended to see it through. Moustafa, he claimed, was persistent and produced a visa and money to allow el Sokari to follow Tamim to Dubai.
A day after his return from the UAE on July 28, el Sokari went to the Four Seasons Hotel in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, which is owned by Moustafa and where the killer worked as security manager until 2004. There, Moustafa reportedly gave him the agreed $2m fee for the killing. Unknown to the billionaire, el Sokari used his mobile phone to record five incriminating telephone calls with Moustafa. In one, recorded on June 25, a month before the murder, a man believed to be Moustafa says: "The best way is to get rid of her ... is to be thrown from above ... in maximum one week or 10 days, I have nothing more to say."
Egyptian prosecutors presented the court with transcripts of the five calls, along with phone company records that confirmed they had taken place. Moustafa, a key member of Egypt's ruling National Democratic Party and a member of the Shura Council, the country's upper house of parliament, was first interrogated upon his return from summer holiday and stripped of parliamentary immunity, then arrested. He denied any part in the crime, blaming the allegations on "rumours from competition against our company locally and internationally". He also denied "any special relations or ties" with, or giving money to, el Sokari and said that he had "humanly sympathised with Suzanne Tamim who was going through family problems".
He had, he said, considered marrying Tamim, but changed his mind after realising the "negative influence" it would have on his personal, political and professional life. Moustafa said he had not been in touch with the singer after she had left for London. "I was shocked by the news of her brutal killing," he said. But the lawyer representing Tamim had a different story. According to her testimony in December, Clara el Romaily said Moustafa used to visit Tamim in London but that the singer successfully evaded him after she met Mr Azzawi. Moustafa tried to track her down by sending her mother and her father on a fully paid visit from Lebanon to speak to her. He also sent his brother Tarek, who is now the chairman of Moustafa's group, but Tamim refused to meet them all.
Tamim, who told the British Metropolitan Police that Moustafa had threatened to kill her, is also reported to have complained that she had been routinely followed, harassed and subjected to telephone threats while living in London. According to Ms Romaily, Moustafa had attempted to take legal action to freeze Tamim's assets in a bank in Switzerland, claiming that the undisclosed sum in the victim's account was his, as was the Dh1.7m that had been invested in her Dubai apartment.
Ms Romaily said it had been Moustafa's mother who had prevented the marriage. She had, said Ms Romaily, fainted upon first being introduced to the singer, and it was shortly after this that Tamim left for London. Tamim had been married before; in 2005 she was questioned by Interpol in Egypt over claims that she had stolen $350,000 from her estranged husband Adel Maatouk. She also faced allegations in Egypt of being involved in a heroin smuggling ring with her father.