Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Curiouser and curiouser

If, as I suspect, the Egyptian’s intention of only announcing Ali Aboutaam’s arrest in Bulgaria on January 15, several weeks after it happened was intended to prompt the Bulgarians into making an announcement, it seems to have succeeded.

On 21st January the Bulgarian daily Dnevnik daily carried a report about the fact that the Bulgarian court has rejected the request for extradition of Ali Abou'Taam, and only now makes known to its readers the allegations made earlier in the Arthur Brand Museum Security Network posting referred to in this blog. I suspect that these allegations will lead to more questions being asked in Bulgaria in the coming days.

This was followed up by a report by the Sofia Echo [Petar Kostadinov Bulgarian prosecutor, art collector conspired to free controversial art dealer - journalist alleges Wed 21 Jan 2009]. In it we are told:
When Dnevnik asked for more details on the story, authorities said that Abou'Taam was indeed arrested in Sofia. The Sofia City Court (SCC), however, said that because Bulgaria and Egypt did not have an extradition agreement, Abou'Taam could not be sent to Egypt. The court's ruling has been appealed but was denied and Abou'Taam was released. The Interior Ministry told Dnevnik that Abou'Taam left Bulgaria for Switzerland on January 7 2009 after his name was taken off the wanted list based on the SCC ruling.
In the “society” section of another Sofia Echo article written by Nick Iliev however there is another allegation: "Dnevnik quotes an anonimous Interior Ministry source as saying that one of Bulgaria's largest collectors of antiques was involved in arranging the release of Abou'Taam."

I am a bit puzzled about the reference to a lack of extradition agreement, because ten years ago, one or more terrorists was/were indeed extradited from Bulgaria to Egypt, but that was communist Bulgaria and not EU-member Bulgaria. It is odd that the reported version of Aboutaam's lawyers' statement seems not to refer to this aspect of the trial: "Bulgaria purely and simply refused to take up the extradition request, considering in substance that the Egyptian conviction targeting my client was illegitimate."

A somewhat puzzling aspect of all this however is when Mr Aboutaam actually left Bulgaria. On the 5th January, Arthur Brand suggested it had taken place soon after the arrest. The Dnevnik was told that this had happened on the 7th January. That things might perhaps not be quite as they seem is suggested by an article by New York journalist Nadira A. Hira, who works in a building just the other side of Central Park from tha Aboutaam brothers' Phoenix Galleries. The article (Really old money Fortune magazine Published: October 23, 2008 has the subtitle “The new darlings of the art market are ancient artifacts. It's a wild, high-stakes game with a shady past. Playing it could make you rich - or get you arrested”. What is interesting in this context is that it carries an interview with the Aboutaam brothers – and apparently both of them (they are photographed in their gallery), making no reference to the fact that since the 17th of September Ali was actually under arrest in Sofia. But the journalist is perhaps not entirely silent about the story. She says
In 2004 […] Ali was sentenced in absentia by an Egyptian court to 15 years in prison for alleged involvement in a smuggling ring. (The case was eventually dropped for lack of evidence.).
Well, no, it was not “dropped” because Ali was arrested in September on the basis of that Egyptian conviction – not until a Bulgarian court (according to his lawyer) said that the conviction was “illegitimate” – but then, who did Ms Hira learn that from before October 23rd , and when? Sadly she has not yet returned my email asking that question. Perhaps the article was written long before the fatal trip from Paris to Sofia, if so it is a shame (bearing in mind the headline) that it was not updated, but perhaps Fortune is not as well-informed as it likes to think?

See also David Gill’s continuing Looting Matters coverage of this curious connundrum.

1 comment:

David Gill said...

A statement from Phoenix Ancient Art can be found in full on Looting Matters.

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