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Smugglers ring broken
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 09 - 10 - 2003

Switzerland has helped Egypt crack on an international smuggling ring and bring its members to trial. Nevine El-Aref reports
After six months of national and international investigations, Egyptian Prosecutor-General Maher Abdel-Wahed last Friday referred to trial 31 people involved in a massive antiquities smuggling ring which allegedly removed at least 300 Pharaonic, Coptic and Islamic artefacts from Egypt. The group has also been accused of graft and money laundering.
According to Abdel-Wahed, 18 of the accused are in custody while 13 have yet to be apprehended. Nine are foreigners holding Swiss, German, Canadian, Moroccan and Lebanese nationalities.
The Egyptian defendants include Tarek El- Sweissi, former head of the National Democratic Party for the Giza area, three customs officials, two police colonels and five antiquities officials.
"This is the highest level of corruption witnessed in Egypt in recent times, because it has to do with historical treasures," Abdel-Wahed told reporters.
He accused the Egyptian culprits of carrying out illegal excavations at several archaeological sites, taking possession of countless authentic artefacts, exporting them as replicas from the Khan Al-Khalili bazaar and then selling them on the antiquities market with the help of foreign accomplices.
The prosecutor-general has charged El-Sweissi of bribing government officials to gain access to the VIP gates at Cairo Airport, thereby circumventing luggage inspection procedures. El- Sweissi was also charged with laundering LE10 million, US$16 million, 112,000 euros and 600,000 Swiss francs. Abdel-Wahed requested the Swiss authorities to freeze any bank accounts belonging to El-Sweissi .
Evidence of this substantial theft was uncovered six months ago when state security officers arrested El-Sweissi and found a number of genuine artefacts in his luxurious villa in the Al- Mansouriya district of Cairo. Last August, as part of a separate investigation into suspected theft, receipt of stolen property and fraud, Swiss police raided a duty-free warehouse in Geneva and seized 300 artefacts which included Pharaonic sarcophagi, mummies, statues, reliefs, pots and other pieces. The Swiss Federal Office of Justice meanwhile granted the unidentified owner 10 days in which to submit permission for the seized goods and documentation to be used as evidence. The office promised to return the pieces to Egypt at the end of this grace period. In response to the Swiss decree, an Egyptian delegation led by Giza Chief Antiquities Inspector Mansour Brak travelled to Geneva to validate the authenticity of the goods.
"I am very satisfied with the result. I very much appreciate all the efforts made by both countries to arrest the smugglers and recover the objects," Culture Minister Farouk Hosni told Al- Ahram Weekly. Hosni also stressed the importance of cooperation between Egypt and Switzerland in the fight against Egypt's antiquities smugglers.
"Without the help and the support of the Swiss authorities we would not have been able to recover the 300 stolen objects," he said.
"Recovering these objects constitutes a success story for Egypt. It is the first time that Switzerland has agreed to aid this country with its investigations and return stolen artefacts to where they belong," Zahi Hawass, secretary-general of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, told the Weekly.
Hawass said that antiquities smugglers were protected by Swiss law, which permitted antiquities trading. "Now, after signing the 1972 UNESCO convention, which stipulates that antiquities remain the property of the country [of origin], any genuine piece smuggled out of the country since the signing of the convention must be returned; Switzerland has agreed to hand over the artefacts."
"It will also be a good opportunity to recover hundreds and thousands of other authentic items," he continued.
The Swiss legislature last June made the move to toughen the laws relating to the smuggling of cultural artefacts into the country. This move was prompted by the situation in Iraq, where thousands of ancient artefacts were looted and removed from the country. However, there has been no evidence so far to suggest that Iraqi antiquities have been imported into Switzerland.
Many countries have agreed to provide Egypt with assistance to have stolen artefacts returned to the country and their smugglers identified. The US is one such country, and the federal court enforced Egyptian Law 117 of 1983 and convicted antiquities dealer Frederick Schultz on charges of smuggling Egyptian antiquities.
Egypt has also managed to recover other artefacts from the US and Germany, and has arrested a number of smugglers, both Egyptian and foreign. One such smuggler is Abdel-Karim Abu Shanab, who was charged last January of accepting a bribe to the tune of LE25,000 to forge documentation stating that certain exported objects were fake.


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