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Successive Pakistani Police raids intercept hundreds of looted 2,000-year old antiquities – UPDATED

July 7, 2012

In this Friday, July 6, 2012 photo, Pakistani workers unload ancient Buddhist sculptures from a container seized by police Friday, that smugglers were attempting to spirit out of the country, in Karachi, Pakistan. Pakistani officials say police have seized many sculptures of Buddha and other related religious figures worth millions of dollars that experts indicated could be over 2,000 years old. Photo: Shakil Adil / AP

Reports out from the Associated Press, Agence France Presse, and the Pakistan News Service about the interception by Pakistani officials of more than 300 looted 2,000-year old Gandharan statuary and works of art. According to AP, “smugglers were attempting to spirit [the looted artifacts] out of the country and sell [them] for millions of dollars on the international antiquities market, officials said Saturday. The stash included many sculptures of Buddha and other related religious figures that experts say could be over 2,000 years old. The items were likely illegally excavated from archaeological sites in Pakistan’s northwest, said Salimul Haq, a director at the government’s archaeology department.”  The antiquities had been stashed on a flatbed truck.  The driver and a second person were taken into custody.

From AFP:

The haul included statues of Buddha, life-sized idols, bronze artefacts, utensils and decorative plaques, Qasim Ali Qasim, director of Sindh province archaeology department, told AFP.

Qasim said he believed the items had been dug up in Taliban-infested northwest Pakistan and brought to Karachi a piece or two at a time, ready for dispatch to Europe overland via Afghanistan and Central Asia.

The following day, according to the Herald Sun, using information gathered during the prior day’s arrest, police raided a warehouse leading to the recovery of dozens more looted artifacts. “Mr. Qasim said it was one of the biggest seizure of such precious antiquities in the country’s history.”

The Express Tribune added the following: “National Museum’s director, Mohammad Shah Bokhari, told The Express Tribune that … the artefacts looked like they had been packed several years ago. “We believe that they were excavated from the northern areas, but can’t tell the exact location for sure.” The biggest statue in the haul was of Buddha meditating with his devotees. The sculpture is 94 inches long and 70 inches wide.”

UPDATE 1: Here’s a disturbing headline, also from The Express Tribune: After successful rescue, 3rd C Buddhist figures destroyed at police station.

Amid the sweating and heaving, labourers offloading smuggled boxes from a seized container argued whether their contents were Hindu or Buddhist, ignoring that they were smashing the treasures in the process.

The figures were wrapped in colourful foam and placed in wooden boxes. But as the police and labourers had no idea of the value of the artefacts they were dumped in the courtyard of the police station. Many were simply smashed, some ended up headless and others lost their hands and feet.

UPDATE 2: From the Pakistan News Service: Elder brother of antiquities smuggling suspects nabbed:

KARACHI: Police on Tuesday [July 10, 2012] claimed to have arrested the elder brother of prime suspects booked for smuggling Gandhara artifacts, which date back to the third century.

They said that Tahir Qayyum Butt was taken into custody from Gulshan-e-Iqbal area. His two brothers Asif Butt and Atif Butt are the prime suspectsof a case registered at the Awami Colony police station for antiquities’ smuggling. Needless to say, police had recovered the artifacts on July 6 after impounding a container en route to Sialkot at Bilal Chowrangi, Korangi Industrial Area.

The driver and cleaner of the container were also arrested in the act. Subsequently, they registered a case against the driver and cleaner and also nominated container’s owners Asif Butt and Atif Butt as the primesuspects.

SHO Javed Brohi said that they arrested Qayyum Butt after a proper rake. He said that Qayyum was not nominated in the case, however, they detained him for the questioning only. The driver and cleaner are already in a police remand till July 11. On the other hand, sources claim that Qayyum’s siblings are already enjoying bails before arrest while their links are making their arrests a tough ask for the police.

UPDATE 3: Now this kicker from Archaeology, allegations that some of the artifacts have now been stolen from police custody:

Reports from Karachi suggest that some of the Gandhara antiquities and fakes seized last month have been stolen from the police station where they were being held. Mohammad Shah Bokhari, director of Pakistan’s National Musuem, documented some 330 artifacts, but now the count is 308. “It is untrue that artifacts have been stolen [from the police station]. To our knowledge, there are only 308 pieces. We don’t have information about the rest,” replied station police officer Marwat of the Awami Colony police station.

UPDATE 4: The Express Tribune carries his coverage about alleged thefts of the artifacts from police custody:

The police and archaeology experts seem to be at loggerheads over the actual number of Gandhara relics seized earlier in the month.

Amid press reports that some artefacts have been stolen from the Awami Colony police station, both parties associated with the case are coming up with a different total for the statues.

While National Museum’s director Mohammad Shah Bokhari claims to have photographed and documented around 330 pieces earlier, the newly posted SHO at the police station, Hatim Marwat, says there are only 308 artefacts.

The police had seized a container full of Buddhist relics on July 6 and then found some more in a Korangi warehouse on July 8. As the police were investigating the case, archaeology experts, including officials from Sindh culture department and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s archaeology department, were called in to record the details of the seized relics.

Many of the Buddhist relics thought to be of the third century turned out to be fake, making it even more difficult for archaeologists to determine their exact origin. According to an antiquities officer, experts are yet to determine how many of the Buddhist relics are fake.

“We need resources such as forensic analysis to determine the authenticity of each of the relic,” he said. “Right now we don’t have that facility.”

Some of the ancient relics had even been damaged due to the careless handling by police officers and labourers during shifting. The artefacts were dumped in a compound of the Awami Colony police station. Reports in the press suggested that piece by piece, the relics were being stolen due to the casual security at the police station. There were reports that three statues have gone missing, but there has been no official confirmation.

Awami Colony SHO Marwat told The Express Tribune that all of the seized relics were documented by the Sindh culture department officials and have documentation numbers on them.

“It is untrue that artefacts have been stolen [from the police station],” he said. “To our knowledge, there are only 308 pieces. We don’t have information about the rest.”

However, National Museum’s Bokhari told The Express Tribune that photographic evidence and records were available of 330 artefacts. If some have gone missing, it is the responsibility of the police, he added.

“The police have their custody, and we can’t keep check all day and night to see where the idols are and how they are being handled,” Bokhari said. “If they have been stolen, the police are to be blamed [for it].”

The artefacts will remain at the police station until the next court hearing on July 24. It is expected that the court will handed them over to the culture department.

When asked why the Gandhara relics were dumped in the courtyard, the SHO replied: “The statues are not watermelons that need to be kept in a refrigerator. Look at their size and weight. Where else would we keep them?”

Police sources said that the former SHO was transferred as some statues had gone missing from the police station. But Marwat denied this, saying his predecessor’s posting was a routine matter.

A Pakistani police official inspects seized ancient statues at a police station in Karachi (AFP, Rizwan Tabassum)

A Pakistani journalist takes notes next to ancient Buddhist sculptures seized by police Friday, that smugglers were attempting to spirit out of the country, in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo: Shakil Adil / AP

Pakistani police officers examine an ancient Buddhist sculpture seized by police Friday, that smugglers were attempting to spirit out of the country, in Karachi, Pakistan. Photo: Shakil Adil / AP

A policeman looks at a sculpture found from warehouse. PHOTO: ATHAR KHAN/EXPRESS

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 7, 2012 5:17 PM

    Tragically, the artifacts have been separated from their site of origin, losing critical identifying data.

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