September 14, 2010 / 5:31 PM / 7 years ago

Egypt minister at fault for Van Gogh theft--lawyers

3 Min Read

* Impressionist masterpiece stolen from central Cairo museum

* Next hearing set for Sept. 28

By Shaimaa Fayed

CAIRO, Sept 14 (Reuters) - Lawyers for 11 Egyptian culture ministry officials charged with negligence over the theft of a $55 million Van Gogh painting said on Tuesday their clients were scapegoats and the minister should shoulder responsibility.

Judge Mohamed Assar set a further hearing for Sept. 28 to allow time for testimony of four people who defence lawyers said could shed further light on the case.

The ministry officials are charged with negligence and shortcomings in performing their duties that led to the loss of the painting, whose theft has created a media stir and raised public questions about how Egypt preserves national treasures.

"We are asking the court to consider the culture minister a suspect in this case and not a witness," said one defence lawyer in the defence team, speaking in a crowded and rowdy court room.

Van Gogh's "Vase with Viscaria" was stolen last month from Cairo's Mahmoud Khalil Museum, home to one of the Middle East's finest collections of 19th- and 20th-century art.

An early investigation showed "flagrant shortcomings" in security, with only seven of the museum's 43 security cameras working properly, according to state media.

Defence lawyers said Culture Minister Farouk Hosni was also guilty of negligence and pointed to previous lapses by his ministry.

"We would like (Hosni) to be present in court to prove the minister was well aware of the deteriorated security situation in all museums in Egypt," defence lawyer Samir Sabry told reporters following Tuesday's court session.

In remarks published in the Egyptian press, the minister has blamed "incompetent" security staff for the theft and said he has suffered sleepless nights because of worries about the safety of Egypt's art treasures.

The defence lawyers urged the judge to hear accounts of more people, including two culture ministry officials, a former employee of the ministry and a member of the tourism police, who they said they could prove negligence on the minister's part.

The judge ordered the release of one of five defendents, who were detained pending the hearing.

A third defence lawyer told the court: "All the current suspects in the case are scapegoats as usual." (Reporting by Shaimaa Fayed; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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