Friday 24 July 2020

California Man Charged with Unlawfully Importing Mosaic Not-Bought-From-ISIL

Repaired in antiquity, lifted before 2015  (U.S. Attorney’s Office, Central District of California)

A lifted Roman or Byzantine mosaic from Syria depicting Heracles, Aphrodite and Zeus is at the centre of a new case involving Syrian antiquities (DoJ Press release Friday, July 24, 2020):
A California man was charged today with one count of unlawfully affecting [sic] the entry of goods into the United States upon false classification as to quality and value. [...] According to the indictment, Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi, 53, of Palmdale, California, claimed he was importing a shipment of items valued at $2,199, when in fact he was importing a mosaic worth more than that amount, and he misrepresented the quality of the mosaic, including what the mosaic depicted. The charges in the indictment are allegations, and the defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.
This is represented as a new story, so it is a bit odd to find this in, Nathan Solis, ' Feds Seize Roman-Era Mosaic Smuggled From War-Torn Syria' May 25, 2018
 an 18-foot, one-ton ancient mosaic [...] smuggled from war-torn Syria was recovered from a home by federal agents. The mosaic [...] was found at the Palmdale home of Mohamad Yassin Alcharihi. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says Alcharihi has been the center of an FBI investigation since 2015. Agents have been looking into Alcharihi’s suspected involvement with “smuggling looted items believed to be from a foreign conflict area into the United States,” according to a forfeiture complaint filed this week in the Central District of California. [...] The forfeiture action says Alcharihi illegally imported the items and knowingly used false documents to smuggle the pieces into the United States, but does not charge him with any crime.  
So this case has been churning on two years. Two years ago there were no charges, just the forfeiture of the mosaic. Now charges are being pressed but again only (it seems) in the case of the mosaic, although there is more than a single 'portableised' mosaic involved:
 Prosecutors say Alcharihi hired a California customs broker in August 2015 to process paperwork to import items into the United States. Soon after, three mosaics and 81 vases arrived at the Port of Long Beach near Los Angeles. According to documents submitted to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, Alcharihi said the items were valued at approximately $2,200. He later told federal agents he paid $12,000 for the mosaics and vases, prosecutors say, adding the value of the ancient mosaic is likely much higher. Agents said they interviewed two witnesses who did some restoration work on the mosaic for Alcharihi at his home in March 2016. One of the witnesses says Alcharihi paid him $40,000. “Alcharihi further told Witness 1 that the mosaic was peeled off a floor 25 years ago and that it had taken him (Alcharihi) 10 years to get the mosaic out of Turkey because the laws had changed there. Alcharihi told Witness 1 the mosaic had been rolled up for 25 years,” prosecutors say in the complaint. However, an expert on ancient mosaic floors told federal agents the mosaic was an authentic piece from the Byzantine Period depicting Greek mythology and the iconography was consistent with other art found near the Syrian city of Idlib. After agents served a search warrant at Alcharihi’s home, Alcharihi said the mosaic came from Turkey. His email trail, however, indicated the piece came from Idlib, prosecutors say. 
Syria in August 2016
It is reported that Alcharihi is a Syrian national who became a U.S. citizen in 2010.

In 2015 Idlib and the surrounding area changed hands twice, it was a rebel province, parts were re-taken by the government, but at the end of March a rebel alliance  (Army of Conquest, led by the al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham) captured the city and surrounding areas - which includes a number of so-called 'Dead Cities'. In April 2015, the interim seat of the Syrian opposition's Syrian Interim Government was proposed to be Idlib. Later, in 2017, Tahrir al-Sham (successor of the al-Nusra Front) were to drive the remaining forces of Ahrar al-Sham from Idlib.

This area was never under ISIL control. At the time these mosaics were being imported to the USA Al-Nusra was in charge. Yet, it seems from the above that the mosaics had been transported through Turkey and so they could have been looted at any time during the 2011-2015 period (less likely, but of course could have been before the civil war as the owner claims). Although Idlib itself remained in government hands 2012-15,  the area around was in the hands of the Free Syrian Army and then (2012+) groups related to the Al-Nusra Front.

It will be interesting to see whether the paper trail can be used to identify where and when the mosaic left Syria (if indeed it can be documented it actually came from there) or whether the court case will concentrate on the stage of the journey from Turkey to the US.

What is interesting is the way that this story seems to be being downplayed because it does not fit the "ISIL(terrorists) - antiquities" trope being promoted by the US from September 2014. The terse wording of the recent press release provokes questions about whether it is still important to Washington to continue to present the "ISIL" message.

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