Moustafa paid Munir el-Sukkary, a retired policeman, to kill pop singer Suzanne Tamim in Dubai, in July 2008 [EPA]

An Egyptian court has handed a billionaire charged with killing his pop star lover a lighter sentence of 15 years after an earlier trial sentenced him to death, the state news agency has reported.

Tuesday's new sentence of Hisham Talaat Moustafa, a prominent member of Egypt's ruling party, in the brutal murder of a Lebanese singer, is likely to spark new accusations of political influence.

Moustafa, the builder behind the luxury suburbs for the rich that now circle impoverished Cairo, was close to the powerful son of Egypt's president and has come to symbolise the close bond between businessmen and politicians in recent years.

The judge convicted Moustafa for conspiracy to murder 30-year-old Suzanne Tamim and gave him 15 years in prison.

The real estate tycoon was sentenced to death in May 2009 after being convicted of paying a retired Egyptian police officer $2m to kill Tamim while she was in Dubai in July 2008. The court in March overturned the conviction on procedural grounds and ordered a retrial.

The sentence for Mohsen el-Sukkary, the man actually convicted of killing Tamim, was also reduced to just life in prison, which is 25 years under the Egyptian penal code.

Prison years, under the Egyptian system are nine months long, meaning that Moustafa could be released in just a few years, counting time served and good behaviour.

The sentences can still be appealed by the defendants, the prosecutor or Tamim's family.

Surprising verdict

Hoda Abdel-Hamid, Al Jazeera's correspondent in Cairo, said the latest verdict was surprising because the appeal hearing only started four days ago.

"The court was supposed to listen to several witnesses and it just heard only two...the defence team did not give its final summation and then all of a sudden the judge came out with this judgement."

The initial allegations shocked Egyptians, unused to seeing powerful politicians perceived as untouchable taken to court, and the new lighter sentences are certain to raise charges that Moustafa's influence kept him from the gallows.

"Right at the beginning, everybody here thought that nothing would happen because Talaat Moustafa is so close to the ruling elite in the country (in fact) he is part of the ruling elite and he is such an influential businessman... 

"(But) when he was given the death sentence, there was a sense of satisfaction amongst the Egyptian people that there was actually one law for everyone, (and) now with this overturn of the sentencing, people would want to know why exactly two men involved in the same crime got two different sentences," our correspondent said.

"This is the result of the marriage between the regime and the wealthy," Abdullah el-Sinnawi, the editor of the opposition Al-Arabi newspaper, said.

"The regime wants to protect its people."

In May, it was widely reported in the Arab media that Moustafa had agreed to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation to her family.

The company he once headed, Talaat Moustafa Group (TMG), is Egypt's largest publicly traded property developer.

Controversy

TMG has been the focus of news reports for the past few weeks after a court annulled its contract for the purchase of a 33-square-kilometre plot of desert land on which it is building another luxury gated community outside the capital.

The case surrounding the Madinaty project became symbolic of the sweetheart deals which critics say are common between the government and businessmen, an impression that strengthened after the government stepped in and re-awarded the disputed land to TMG to avoid eroding international investor confidence in Egypt.

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 her husband, according to media reports.

During interrogations, Moustafa said he broke up with Tamim after his mother opposed the couple's marriage plan.

Dubai investigators claimed 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.

Source: Al Jazeera and agencies