Friday, January 30, 2009

Phoenix Ancient Art Issues Clarification

Just over a week ago I was asked if I could post a statement of facts about the detention of Ali Aboutaam in Sofia.

Dukas Public Relations, who hold an account for Phoenix Ancient Art, have issued a press release (New York, January 28, 2009) through PR Newswire (see statement). I reproduce it here for convenience:
Phoenix Ancient Art Clarifies Misleading Article Regarding Ali Aboutaam from Thomson Reuters

Phoenix Ancient Art has stated that the information published by the Thomson Reuters news agency regarding Mr. Ali Aboutaam, dated January 15, 2009, is incorrect.

The story stated that Mr. Aboutaam was under arrest in Sofia, Bulgaria. In fact, Mr. Aboutaam is at his home in Switzerland and his movements are not restricted.

A registered letter was sent on January 19, 2009 to the Swiss office of Thomson Reuters to ensure that this false information, which was issued through that company's Cairo agency at the behest of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, would be deleted immediately.

As a result, Thomson Reuters published the same day, a new dispatch specifying the facts underlying its initial news report and indicating this time that the Sofia High court, Bulgaria, had issued a definitive ruling on Egypt's motion for extradition and had concluded in its verdict, based on the applicable European Community law, that the Egyptian motion was without merit and therefore inadmissible - an extremely unusual action in extradition law.

To summarize the background: Mr. Aboutaam was sentenced in absentia to 15 years imprisonment in Egypt in 2004, accused of aiding and abetting in the smuggling of antiquities. This sentence was handed down following the trial of several Egyptian nationals and nine international associates, a trial which took place without Mr. Aboutaam ever being informed that any proceedings whatsoever had been instigated against him and without him being invited to participate in such proceedings. The sentence that was pronounced following this first trial was never even notified to Mr. Aboutaam, whose address in Switzerland is publicly known due to his important commercial activities. Consequently, Mr. Aboutaam only learned of this verdict against him later on, through a third party who drew his attention to the content of articles that had appeared in the Egyptian media.

The Egyptian nationals who were the subject of this trial appealed the judgment pronounced against them. The verdict of the trial court judges was thus overturned. Eventually, on April 6, 2008, there was a final ruling on the case, fully and finally quashing the sentences pronounced in May 2004. Once again Mr. Aboutaam was never invited to part take in the appeal proceedings.

It should be noted that following the proceedings, the three principal accused were fully and finally exonerated from the accusations of smuggling antiquities by the Egyptian judges, thereby exonerating any individual accused of aiding and abetting. This final definitive judgment nullifies the idea put forth by the Egyptian judicial authorities that Mr. Aboutaam would be entitled to a new trial if he returned to Egypt, a country in which, incidentally, he has never stayed, either privately or in his professional career.

It was also noted in the terms of the statements issued by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture that a link had been established between the seizure of Egyptian antiquities (280-300 artifacts) in Switzerland in the summer of 2003 and Mr. Aboutaam. This statement is once again baseless and unsubstantiated. Had there been any merit to the allegations, Mr. Aboutaam would not have been able to practice his profession in recent years. Mr. Aboutaam has never been the subject of a seizure related to objects of Egyptian provenance in Switzerland, where he has remained available to comment on any related questions.

It is consequently both shocking and intolerable that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture has been authorized, without the slightest verification by the Thomson Reuters agency, to issue such statements, which have no basis and are contrary to the actual facts. In the interim, those facts have been confirmed by the Bulgarian judicial authorities. The remarks made by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, and more particularly Mr. Zahi Hawass, are slanderous and consequently impugn Mr. Aboutaam's honor.

Phoenix Ancient Art continues to pride itself on its transparency and dedication to complying with and working with law enforcement to ensure the integrity of the legal antiquities trade in all nations.

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