Prominent Egyptian businessman charged with smuggling antiquities

The media mogul has been referred to a criminal court accused of forming a gang that illegally excavated and traded ancient artefacts

Egyptian businessman Hassan Rateb

Prominent businessman Hassan Rateb and 20 other defendants were referred to a criminal court on Sunday, after being charged by a prosecutor-general with illegally excavating and smuggling antiquities.

A prosecution statement said Mr Rateb was arrested in June, after police investigations found he was paying for illegal archaeological digs being carried out by former parliamentarian Alaa Hassanein.

Mr Hassanein and three others were arrested in June at the same time as Mr Rateb.

The bulk of the excavations were carried out in the historical Cairene district of Masr El Qadeema, or Old Cairo, an area famous for its Islamic and Coptic relics.

Sunday’s prosecution statement singled out Mr Hassanein as the leader of the gang that conducted illegal excavations and traded stolen artefacts.

In addition to the illegal excavations and unauthorised sale of the antiquities, he was charged with damaging national property when he dismantled some of the artefacts in an attempt to smuggle them more easily.

Security officials have apprehended 21 gang members in total, 19 of whom are in custody. Two others are on the run.

An inventory prepared by government antiquities experts detailed the contents of a secret warehouse said to be used by the defendants. It revealed artefacts dating back to the ancient Egypt, Greek and Roman eras.

The list includes tablets with hieroglyphic engravings, prehistoric rocks, surgical needles from the Islamic era, and antique vases and statues.

Media mogul

Mr Rateb is a household name in Egypt, especially in business circles.

After starting the private television network Al Mehwar about 20 years ago, he has heavily invested in the northern and central regions of the Sinai Peninsula.

Mr Rateb is charged with conspiring with Mr Hassanein and with funding the gang’s activities, the prosecution’s statement said. The other gang members are charged with joining the gang while in full knowledge of the illegality of their actions.

Fifteen witness accounts of the gang’s activities were given to prosecutors, according to Sunday’s statement.

A large number of photos and videos was found on several of the defendants’ smartphones documenting the illegal digs, in addition to footage of the stolen artefacts and incriminating conversations between gang members.

The court date for the 23 defendants has not yet been announced.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, second from left, and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, second from right, stand near by several Egyptian artefacts that were stolen and smuggled to Israel. They were attending a handover ceremony during their meeting in Cairo on December 9. EPA

Illegal excavations are not uncommon in Egypt, where archaeological sites are spread over almost the entire length of the Nile – from the Mediterranean coast all the way south to the Sudanese border.

Smuggling the artefacts is profitable given the worldwide demand for antiquities by private collectors.

But the illegal work is dangerous and there have been several incidents in recent years of excavation tunnels caving in, burying the diggers alive. Many illegal diggers carry out their work on privately owned land to avoid detection.

Egypt has in recent years stepped up efforts to track down stolen artefacts around the world, monitoring auctions in major western cities and pressing authorities there to hand them back.

Updated: December 12th 2021, 6:45 PM