Crime & Justice

Yemen cracks down on antiquities smuggling

By Nabil Abdullah al-Tamimi in Aden


Antique camel statuettes are displayed at Sanaa National Museum in February 2007. Hardly a month goes by in Yemen without authorities announcing they have foiled an attempt to smuggle antiquities out of the country. [Khaled Fazaak/AFP]

Yemen is seeking to enter into agreements with neighbouring countries, including those in the Horn of Africa, to prevent the smuggling of antiquities.

"The Ministry of Culture has taken measures to protect Yemeni antiquities from smuggling," said Culture Minister Marwan Damaj.

These include, as a first step, the preparation of a report on lost antiquities.

A copy of this report was submitted to the UN Panel of Experts on Yemen on Sunday (July 8th) in Aden so that "appropriate measures to strengthen the protection of antiquities and prevent its smuggling" can be taken, Damaj said.

At the meeting, held in the presence of Panel of Experts co-ordinator Ahmed Himmiche and international law expert Mary Louise, the minister reviewed the cultural situation in Yemen, especially the destruction of antiquities.

The Iran-backed Houthis (Ansarallah) have excavated archaeological sites and sold antiquities in the areas under their control, Damaj said.

Museums have been partially or totally destroyed, particularly in the provinces of Abyan and Taiz, which resulted in the loss of many artifacts and manuscripts, he added.

Himmiche expressed the panel's readiness to provide technical support to the Ministry of Culture by training technicians in tracking Yemen's cultural heritage in the international market, and instructing all world museums to refrain from buying, selling or trading in Yemeni artifacts.

Preparations are under way for a meeting with the UN Yemen sanctions committee chairman in Jordan or Aden to discuss appropriate measures in co-ordination with the Yemeni Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Damaj said.

Oman foils smuggling operation from Yemen

"A memorandum of understanding will be signed with the Sultanate of Oman to protect Yemeni antiquities from smuggling," he said, after Oman foiled a smuggling operation involving Yemeni antiquities last month.

The Ministry of Culture on June 7th expressed its gratitude to the Omani Ministry of Heritage and Culture for thwarting the smuggling of 52 Yemeni antiquities at al-Mazyouna crossing point between Oman and Yemen.

Oman's Deputy Minister for Heritage Affairs Salem al-Mahrouqi on May 31st announced that a smuggling operation involving 52 Yemeni antiquities and holdings that date back to 1,000 BC had been thwarted.

The smugglers were arrested and referred to the public prosecutor, the Kuwait News Agency reported.

With regard to the retrieval of the antiquities seized in Oman, Damaj said "the Yemeni Ministry of Culture asked its Omani counterpart to hold on to them until security conditions in Yemen improve".

Antiquities under threat

"Yemeni antiquities are being moved out of the country en masse," political analyst Munir Talal told Al-Mashareq.

Neighbouring states and the international community have a responsibility to help protect Yemeni antiquities, he said, as they have become "the object of the greed of many smugglers, saboteurs and terrorists".

He stressed the importance of the role played by the security forces at land border crossings that smugglers of antiquities could use.

"Yemen's antiquities and archaeological sites are being devastated, by either looting and smuggling or by destruction at the hands of terrorist groups," he said.

Ahmed al-Mesbahi, manager of the National Information Centre’s Cultural Affairs Department, said it is everyone's responsibility to protect the country's heritage.

Yemenis should be taught the importance of antiquities and of striving to ensure they are not harmed and do not fall into the hands of smugglers, he told Al-Mashareq.

He proposed that the Ministry of Culture and the Yemeni Antiquities Authority organise media campaigns to raise awareness about this issue in co-ordination with the Ministry of Endowments (Awqaf) and Guidance.

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