Operation Hieratica (Operación Hierática) update: three smugglers convicted, fined, imprisoned

Reading the news about the arrests of antiquities dealers Jaume Bagot Peix and Oriol Carreras Palomar, I was reminded of Operation Hieratica (Operación Hierática). As I blogged in 2015, Operation Hieratica was part of Operation Aureus, which was directed by the Civil Guard in Spain and the police in Cyprus, coordinated by Europol, assisted by Interpol and supported by UNESCO. Between 2nd June 2014 and 19th November 2014, there were thousands of checks and searches of people and vehicles across Europe.

Interception

In May 2014, the Fiscal Service intercepted 25 antiquities and 11 forgeries, as they were being shipped from the port of Alexandria in Egypt, on a Luxembourg-flagged ship, through the port of Valencia in Spain to Barcelona. The objects encompassed human and animal figures (figuras humanas y de animales), including statues of Osiris; funerary vessels (vasos funerarios), including canopic jars (vasos canopos); amphorae (ánforas); and small bronzes (pequeños bronces). They had been ‘hidden [ocultas]’ inside large ceramic vases among 182 boxes in a container.

The Fiscal Service Unit (Unidad de Servicio Fiscal) triggered an investigation by the Historic Heritage Group (Grupo de Patrimonio Histórico). In this investigation, the Civil Guard also coordinated with the Directorate-General of Fine Arts and Cultural Assets in Spain, the Tax Agency in Spain, the Embassy of Egypt in Spain and others. Through consultation with the Embassy of Egypt in Spain, the objects were identified as smuggled.

Investigation

Through analysis by the Department of Egyptian and Near Eastern Antiquities, of the National Archaeological Museum of Spain, the value of the seizure was determined to be more than €150,000. In fact, the value of one stone head of the goddess Sekhmet, from a tomb in the Valley of the Kings near Luxor, was €100,000. The value of everything was between €200,000 and €300,000 (more precisely, between €214,000 and €253,000). So, the violation was determined to be more than an administrative infraction (infracciones administrativas); it was a criminal offence (delito).

Using a ‘device for monitoring and surveillance [dispositivo de control y vigilancia]’ – bugging and/or interception of communications? – on the immediate recipient of the objects, the Civil Guard identified the other four suspects in Spain, then the structure and functioning of the network.

Transnational structures and security measures

As noted by the Civil Guard, ‘the security measures that the detainees adopted (meetings in mosques and premises [that were] located in marginal areas, frequent changes of address, etc.) greatly hindered the investigation [Las medidas de seguridad que adoptaban los detenidos (reuniones en mezquitas y locales ubicados en zonas marginales, cambio frecuente de domicilios, etc.), dificultó en gran medida la investigación]’.

The antiquities were ‘plundered [expoliados]’ from the necropolis of Saqqara and the necropolis of Mit Rahina by ancient Memphis. The genuine and fake objects were then smuggled out of Egypt by the two (or more) Egyptian suppliers in Alexandria, who were apparently ‘in charge of the looting in Egypt [encargado del expolio en Egipto]’.

The objects were then received and transported by the Egyptian intermediary in Valencia, who had ‘no customs records [sin antecedentes aduaneros]’ – in other words, no history of commercial transactions – ‘in order not to raise suspicions [para no levantar sospechas]’. Ironically, that itself ‘raised suspicions [levantó las sospechas]’, as he was suddenly handling hundreds of thousands of euros of cultural goods.

That intermediary was a contractor to the three Egyptian smugglers in Barcelona and Tortosa, who ‘organised the smuggling of the archaeological goods [organizó el contrabando de los bienes arqueológicos]’. The antiquities were then ‘put out into the illicit market [dar salida en el mercado ilícito]’ by the Spanish dealer in Barcelona, seemingly at art fairs, antique fairs and other such events, in the south of France as well as Spain.

Prosecution

As a result, in January 2015 [November 2014], seven people were arrested: one Spanish antiquities dealer in Spain, four Egyptian antiquities traffickers in Spain and two Egyptian antiquities traffickers in Egypt. [The arrests were reported in January 2015.]

Accounts of the crimes have varied. At least at the time, the Civil Guard reportedly stated that it was ‘not directly linked [linkable] to terrorism [no está vinculada directamente con el terrorismo]’, yet the absence of conclusive evidence did ‘not rule out a relationship, since some of the detained people [had (unspecified)] criminal records [no descarta alguna relación, puesto que algunas de las personas detenidas cuentan con antecedentes criminales]’.

The Civil Guard reportedly suspected that the proceeds of the crime ‘could be being channelled through Egypt’ to elsewhere in the region, ‘into the hands of Islamist militants‘; ‘believed’ that the ‘gang’ was ‘selling stolen Egyptian relics to fund Islamic State terrorists’ and that the money ‘going directly to fund jihadists‘; or was ‘convinced that the conspiracy that sent the pieces to Spain use[d] this method to finance jihad with the proceeds of the sale of the works [convencida de que la trama que envió las piezas a España utiliza este método para financiar la Yihad con los beneficios de la venta de las obras]’.

Conviction, fine, imprisonment

In the end, not only was no-one convicted of terrorist financing, but also the Spanish dealer was not convicted of anything. In fact, the judgement acquitted or absolved (absuelve) the dealer, ‘against whom the prosecutor did not make an accusation [contra el que el fiscal no formuló acusación]’. The Egyptian citizen, who was contracted to receive the objects in Valencia and transport them to Barcelona, was not prosecuted either.

In April 2017, the three Egyptian traffickers were ‘sentenced to one year in prison [condenado a un año de prisión]’ and fined €500,000 for the ‘crime of smuggling [delito de contrabando]’, ‘import[ing] into Spain archaeological works [that had been] looted in illegal excavations [introdujeron en España obras arqueológicas expoliadas de excavaciones ilegales]’ in Egypt.

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