Egypt punishes illicit trade in antiquities with life imprisonment

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by Annika Backe

June 15, 2107 – On May 3, 2017, the Egyptian cabinet approved a far-reaching amendment to its antiquities laws. The sentence for the unlawful trade in ancient objects, its possession and illegal excavation were raised from seven years to life in prison. The amendments are currently awaiting parliament approval.

Passed in 1983, Egypt’s antiquities law was already stiffened twice in 2010. Antiquities Minister Khaled El-Enany pushed ahead the regulation on the ground that it helps reduce the trade in his country’s cultural goods that had experienced a rise since the 2010 Revolution. Also, everyone harassing tourists to buy artifacts faces a fine up to $550 (10,000 Egyptian pounds).

The Great Pyramid of Giza near Cairo, Egypt’s capital city. Photo. Foto: Berthold Werner / CC BY-SA 3.0

According to media reports, the amendments are a reaction to numerous violations of the law up to the highest level in the past. Since April 2017, a dozen former staff members of the Antiquities Ministry have faced trial. They are accused of helping a team of German archaeologists steal archaeological material. Chemnitz-based experimental archaeologist Dr. Dominique Görlitz and team manager Stefan Erdmann allegedly took a sample of a cartouche in the Great Pyramid of Giza near Cairo in 2013. They are said to have damaged the royal burial chamber during their visit that was not officially approved.
Because the Germans had already returned home they didn’t have to go to jail – in 2014, a court in Egypt had sentenced them in their absence to five years imprisonment. Although Görlitz, whose academic findings are a matter of dispute among his colleagues, declares his innocence, he was arrested for 50 days in Oman only recently, in April 2017, because Egypt made an extradition request. It was only after the intervention of the German Embassy that Görlitz was released.

With the new regulations and the case of Dominique Görlitz, Egyptian authorities want to show the world that they take drastic measures to protect cultural property. Criminal offences on this matter stand alongside state treason. While in Germany lifelong imprisonment is usually suspended after 15-20 years, in Egypt it way well take up to 40 years. Only drug dealing, terrorism and murder are punished more harshly. A murderer is sentenced to death by hanging or shooting.

If the amendments will serve to protect cultural property effectively or, rather, be an instrument of repression in a country where military courts sentence three-year-olds to life in prison, for participating in bloody riots, remains to be seen.

Egyptian reports on this news can be read here and here.

On YouTube, German archaeologist Dominique Görlitz speaks about his academic theories and his Cheops Project.

The UNESCO provides details of Egypt’s antiquities law in a pdf for download.

Information on the stiffening of other laws and the disregard for human rights under Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi can be found in the Anmnesty International Annual Report 2016/17.

Please read about the toddler sentenced in a mass trial to life in jail by clicking here.

Sometimes the wrong people face such penalties, as illustrated for instance by the famous case of the Swiss policeman who was sentenced to one year and 15 days because he wanted to take a roughly 20 centimeter marble fragment as a souvenir in Turkey. CoinsWeekly reported. In Egypt, he would be imprisoned for 40 years.