Turkey’s Gendarmerie caught a Covid-19-infected, health emergency worker-impersonating antiquities trafficker

Profit-driven criminals are adapting to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic and networks such as the Alliance to Counter Crime Online and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime are monitoring these interactions between the health emergency and illicit activity. The Wildlife Justice Commission has documented adaptations in poaching and trafficking of wildlife.

Such criminals are also exploiting the opportunities of the crisis, notably through cybercrime, fraud, extortion, counterfeit and substandard goods, and organised property crime (which is often advanced by impersonating health professionals or government officials). S-3 Research has documented various online scams around coronavirus test kits. And the Counter Extremism Project has documented that extremist movements are exploiting the crisis too.

The Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology (ATHAR) Project has documented increases in antiquities looting and online trafficking through online communities that span North Africa and West Asia, plus advertisement of (alleged) personal protective equipment (PPE), ‘including face masks, antibacterial gel and even Covid-19 testing kits’ in those online communities. (fn1)

In Turkey, law enforcement/security intervention has revealed another aspect of these interactions between emergency and crime, which demonstrates the (potential) influence of criminal activity on the health emergency (beyond illegal governance such as social control by criminal organisations in Brazil and El Salvador and welfare provision by criminal organisations in Mexico and Italy), as well as the influence of the health emergency on criminal activity.

Acting on a tip-off about three suspects and tracking the licence plate of their vehicle on the first day of the coronavirus curfew, Turkey’s Gendarmerie stopped and searched the vehicle at a checkpoint in the Kumyaka neighbourhood of the Mudanya district of Bursa province. In order ‘to get through the control point, the suspects wore the uniforms of 112 Emergency Service workers and said that they were health workers [zanlıların, kontrol noktasından geçmek için 112 Acil Servis çalışanı kıyafeti giydikleri ve sağlık personeli olduklarını söyledikleri]’.

Apparently, they specified that ‘[they were] health workers [who were] taking a Covid-19-sufferer to hospital [Sağlık personeliyiz Covid 19 hastasını hastaneye götürüyoruz]’. If they did, it might appear inexplicable that the Covid-19-sufferer wore a health worker vest as well, but they might have hoped that no-one would check emergency workers, while they might still check people with emergency workers.

According to reports by reports by Anadolu Agency and İhlas News Agency, when they searched the vehicle, the Gendarmerie seized a yellow-coloured cross/crucifix, a yellow-coloured figure of Jesus Christ, a figure of a priest and a figure of a bird, though they may have been forgeries of cultural symbols, instead of sacred objects; five one-hundred-dollar bills that were inscribed as invalid (geçersiz); either fifty-eight Russian rubles or thirty-five rubles in notes and eight one-ruble coins; a thousand Lebanese lira; one Saudi Arabian rial; a 7.62 mm gun, which had had its serial number and brand filed off, and five 7.62 mm bullets; around half-a-gram of unidentified narcotics, plus two pipes and four unspecified but miniature (minyatür) pieces of kit for drugs; three skewers ‘that were judged to have been used in theft [hırsızlıkta kullanıldığı değerlendirilen]’; 112 health emergency vests; and, seemingly, other things that were not itemised, as there were allegedly ‘a large number of historic artefacts [çok sayıda tarihi esere]’.

objects that were seized from suspects by Gendarmerie in Turkey

One suspect was identified as ‘being coronavirus-positive and having escaped from quarantine [korona virüs pozitif olduğu ve karantinadan kaçtığı]’. Seemingly, all three were taken to Mudanya State Hospital, charged with cultural property crime and illegal drug possession/supply and ‘put under quarantine [karantinaya alındıkları]’.

Somewhat confusingly but nonetheless precisely, it has been noted that, once their addresses had been confirmed, the other two ‘were released [serbest bırakıldı]’. If the story has been reported in chronological order of events, at least for now, they have only been released from police custody into hospital confinement. It is not clear whether, if they are not infected, they will then be held on remand or released pending trial. Release may be judged to be the course of action with the lowest overall risk, but it would still seem remarkable, considering that they were caught in the act while in contact with an infected person, while helping that infected person to evade quarantine.

fn1: It is always difficult to compare statistics for looting in the various jurisdictions of the United Kingdom and it is not yet possible to begin to try to assess such statistics for looting under lockdown. Still, Cheshire Police’s Community Support Officer Wilson observed and stopped two men who were metal-detecting while trespassing, which Essex Police’s Rural and Heritage Crime Officer, Constable Andy Long, specified was #NightHawking. The two illegal metal-detectorists tried to excuse the activity as ‘exercise’.

The reduction in the numbers of passersby who might witness looting, and the diversion of police resources to manage the crisis, create the same opportunities in the UK as elsewhere – and it can only be assumed that those opportunities will be exploited in the UK in the same way as elsewhere. There have also been cases of legal yet improper metal detecting that violated the principles of the lockdown. I expect that this attitudinal problem will also be reflected in unorganised criminal activity.

As reported when three looters were caught in the act of illegal metal-detecting (without symptoms of the virus, but in spite of the lockdown) at the site of the ancient city of Thera, in the Akyaka neighbourhood of the Ula district of Muğla province (in a joint operation by the Anti-Smuggling and Organised Crime Department of the Turkish National Police and the Ula District Gendarmerie Command, on the basis of intelligence from the Smuggling Branch Directorate of Muğla Province Gendarmerie Command), ‘not even coronavirus could stop antiquities traffickers! [Tarihi eser kaçakçılarını corona bile durduramadı!]’

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