Friday 21 December 2012

Salem Alshdaifat Pleads Guilty to Something or Other


According to the usually well-informed Rick St Hilaire ("US v. Khouli et al. Update: Second Guilty Plea Expected Today in Egyptian Antiquities Case", Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St Hilaire blog, 21 Dec 2012), Holyland Numismatics coin dealer Salem Alshdaifat is putting his hand out for his slap-on-the-wrist from the US judicial system in court today. In a letter sent to the federal district court in Brooklyn three days ago, through his lawyers he "signalled his intention to plead guilty to one charge of accessory after the fact in the case of U.S. v. Khouli et al. [...]" (fuller details in St Hilaire's post).

What he is prepared to admit to doing is to credit Khouli's account with a different value of some dodgily-imported items to make it look as if they were worth less than they actually were (in financial terms, the loss to history through their smuggling is less easy to evaluate). That was to get round US customs law:  "By doing this, Mr. Khouli was able to avoid creating evidence that he knew that the value of the objects he imported was more than $2,000 and that he made intentionally false statements to Customs". Alshdaifat claims this was after-the-fact:
"After the international mail shipment arrived in the United States and was received by Mr. Khouli, he asked Mr. Alshdaifat [...]  After the importation had been completed, Mr. Alshdaifat agreed to this financial arrangement [...]". 
Seems a strange way to do business to me.

This, his lawyer hopes will get him off. He claims that the misdemeanour to which his client is pleading guilty is "substantially less serious and his conduct much less culpable than that of Mr. Khouli", his former trusted business partner. (Is there any evidence that Alshdaifat did further business with Khouli or his partners after this event?) St Hilaire gives us the rest of this special pleading from Counsel for the defendant:
"Because Mr. Alshdaifat had only an accessory-after-the-fact role in Mr. Khouli's scheme to make false statements to U.S. Customs, and because he otherwise has a commendable personal history, no prior criminal history, and sympathetic family circumstances, he respectfully requests that the Court not impose a term of imprisonment or probation as part of his sentence for this conduct. Also, because Mr. Alshdaifat already has suffered substantial economic harm from the fact that this case was brought against him, in both the form of lost business and from the government's improper seizure of his entire inventory of ancient coins for several months after raiding his home at the time of his arrest, we respectfully ask the Court not to impose a significant fine." 
So this is it, this is how the "ground-breaking"  HSI investigation ends. Readers will remember the latter crowing at one of their meet-the-press shows that they'd "broken up" some kind of a "smuggling ring" and one of the cases was the importation of a specific group of stuff (ICE Press release 14th July 2011: "as alleged in the indictment, from approximately October 2008 until approximately November 2009, the defendants, together with others, engaged in a scheme to smuggle cultural antiquities into the United States"). The ICE were following up quite a complex trail of transactions, and one of the dealers in the centre now by pleading guilty to just one part of the process (basically agreeing to go along with what the other guy did) now wants to get off almost Scot-free. What happened in this plea deal to the "money laundering" charges and all the rest? Pathetic.

It is unclear how his family being "sympathetic" should bear on the sentence, I really think if a dealer has a house and business premises full of ancient coins of unclear origins and is questioned on charges of antiquities smuggling, the investigating officers would be failing in their duty if they did not look into the origin of those items. Nothing "improper" in that.

As for allegedly losing business due to this case, I really think the majority of buyers of imported dugup antiquities are more concerned that the items they buy are authentic and unaltered than whether somebody down the line of supply skipped getting a few pieces of paper. What they are interested in is how much Alshdaifat wants for the coins that interest them, nothing else. What is more, knowledge that Alshdaifat's "entire inventory of ancient coins" was in Federal hands and they gave them all back gives those particular coins - whatever their actual status - a cast-iron "they can't touch you for it" alibi, which is good enough for the vast majority of the buyers of such things, who care less for the moral niceties than they do about their own safety from prosecution and confiscation.

Has Alshdaifat been losing sympathy and business? Well, the ACCG kicked him out, but it seems to me that only like-minded coiney crazies would pay any attention to a particular dealer's association with that bunch of lunatics.  

Holyland Numismatics has an online sales portal containing a wide range of ancient dugup coins from all over the Mediterranean, North African and Middle Eastern area.  They are also on V-Coins (with 1311 coins on sale and 2700 'sold coins' since they went online there - and look where many of them are coming from).There does not seem to be a lot of evidence here that they are struggling because of the allegations of involvement in artefact smuggling. The website is ranked 11,530,070 in the world (whereas Wayne Sayles' has no global alexa traffic rank), so from this point of view, Alshdifat is doing much better than long-established and respected dealer Sayles.
Also there has been a vigorous campaign of letter-writing in Alshdaifat's favour, provoked by fellow dealers in ancient coins, with Alshdaifat actively soliciting them (!). Not everyone however was happy with this. One presumes these 'unsolicited' letters from fellow dealers and dugup collectors have now gone to the judge as character references.

Presumably he will have to wait a few more weeks for Alshdaifat's slap-on-the-wrist-sentencing.

The collector Joseph A. Lewis II was also indicted as a co-defendant last year, and St Hilaire informs that his next court hearing is scheduled for January 3, 2013. Frankly, I do not think he need worry about any of the allegations, if the other two cases are anything to go by. The great made-for-TV hoo-haa about a "major smuggling ring" seems to have fizzled to virtually nothing, and the evidence supporting the allegations against Lewis was not particularly strong either in my opinion.

The fourth co-defendant, antiquity dealer Ayman Ramadan, is described by as the US authorities as "remaining a fugitive". That is rather dramatic language for the actual situation. The guy is based in Dubai, is not in US hands, has not been charged with anything, and is free to go about his legitimate business as he may please. They cannot touch him, and I hardly think POTUS is going to send an assasination drone after him over a few painted boards.

Also now Mubarak has gone and the US is fast losing influence in that part of the Middle East through the mishandling by the Obama administration of the deteriorating political situation, I wonder how much political will there is any more in the US to make such a big effort to protect Egyptian antiquities.

Basically I think the Americans have just made themselves look supremely ridiculous by the failure of this much-hyped case to do anything except provide a bit of an entertaining feel-good show for ICE a few months ago, and the display of a few trophy artefacts seized. Nobody's involvement in any "smuggling ring" has been demonstrated in a court of law, let alone such a "ring" being "broken". Artefacts are still coming into the US by various routes, and two of the defendants are still trading artefacts as though nothing has happened - as indeed is the case, nothing has in fact happened. The US authrorities jumped the gun when they had no real case. The US 'Cultural Property Protection Programme' in fact is turning out to be nothing other than a huge Disney farce.

ICE Press release, 'ICE makes arrests and seizes cultural artifacts stolen from Egypt', 14th July 2011.

Vignette: The 'meet-the-press-show' tablecloths are ready and waiting to reassure the American public that ICE are watching what goes through US borders. 

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