CAIRO (Reuters) - A wanted Lebanese antiquities dealer has been arrested in Bulgaria over accusations he stole ancient Egyptian artefacts and slipped them out of the country in recent years, Egypt’s Culture Ministry said on Thursday.
Ali Abu Taam, arrested on Wednesday with help from Interpol, was accused of helping a convicted antiquities thief smuggle 280 artefacts out of Egypt by mislabelling them as glass bottles or hiding them in boxes of toys and electronics marked as exports.
An Egyptian criminal court convicted Abu Taam in absentia in 2004 on charges of helping antiquities thief Tarek al-Seweissi smuggle Egyptian artefacts. Abu Taam was sentenced to 15 years in prison and fined 50,000 Egyptian pounds.
Seweissi was arrested in 2003 and convicted of stealing and smuggling Egyptian antiquities, while Abu Taam had remained at large until his arrest, the ministry said.
Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s chief archaeologist, said in a statement that Abu Taam’s arrest was a “concrete step toward stopping the trade in illegal antiquities around the world”.
The Culture Ministry gave no details as to what type of artefacts were involved. Egypt is home to some of the world’s richest antiquities including pharaonic treasures, Roman ruins and Judeo-Christian and Islamic artefacts.
Under Egyptian law, Abu Taam would typically be eligible for a retrial if he is returned to the Arab country. The Culture Ministry did not say whether Abu Taam, who owns an antiquities dealership and lives in Geneva, would be sent to Egypt.
Egypt has launched several campaigns in recent years to secure the return of antiquities illegally removed from the most populous Arab country. Since 2002, it has succeeded in bringing home around 5,000 stolen or smuggled artefacts, the ministry said.