MPs on Thursday raised questions about the authorities’ handling of a stolen ancient Egyptian artefact, which they claim was illicitly unearthed in Cyprus whereas the transport ministry states the object was looted from Egypt.
The issue of the item’s provenance has somehow dovetailed into the upcoming visit to Cyprus of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
That is because President Nicos Anastasiades, in a gesture of good neighbourly relations, intends to present the artefact as a gift to al-Sisi.
MPs insist the Antiquities Department must immediately return the artefact to the police. On Thursday, the House watchdog committee asked the Attorney-general to intervene in the matter.
They want the Attorney-general to instruct Antiquities to give back the artefact, as it is the subject of an ongoing police investigation and therefore constitutes an evidentiary item.
Asked what action he would take, attorney-general Costas Clerides told the Cyprus Mail late on Thursday that he had yet to officially receive the MPs’ request.
He would examine the request once he received it.
The object in question is a vessel dated to the 13th century BC depicting Ramses II of the 19th dynasty of Egypt.
Lawmakers say the police probe must be completed first before the artefact can be cleared to be given to President Anastasiades.
But in a statement, the transport ministry said that, following a request for information by Cypriot police to Interpol, it was determined that the object had been illicitly exported from Egypt after illegal excavations at a burial site there.
Since Egypt has filed a formal request for the artefact’s repatriation, the item is to be delivered to the Egyptian president during his visit to Cyprus, the statement added.
The ministry added that allegations to the effect the artefact was dug up from an ancient burial site in Cyprus are “vague and unsubstantiated.”
But in parliament on Thursday, opposition MPs insisted the artefact was unearthed on the island, not Egypt.
And they raised the question of how the item came to be in the possession of Antiquities since it is designated as evidence in an ongoing police probe.
From the transport ministry’s perspective, this is now a shut case. Moreover, going by the ministry’s account, the police investigation was prompted by the Egyptians’ request to have it returned.
By contrast, MPs say the case is still very much open and that it rather is the result of reports filed to the police by locals who claim the artefact was unearthed in Paphos.
The bizarre story goes back to October 2016, when a Greek Cypriot man contacted Antiquities and requested an export permit for the artefact.
At the time, he did not bring the item with him, but provided photos of it. The man claimed the object was part of a private collection of his, and that he bought it from a woman for €350 in 1986.
Up to this point, the facts of the case are agreed.
But MPs contend that around the same timeframe, a number of people filed a report with Paphos police claiming the item was in fact stolen from a field in Kouklia, Paphos.
According to information given to MPs, among the people reporting this to police was the man who cultivated the plot from where the artefact was allegedly illegally excavated. Police then initiated an investigation.
It is based on this, the MPs say, that Antiquities then denied the Greek Cypriot’s request for an export permit and asked him to hand over the artefact.
The man was hard to reach after that.
In March 2017, meanwhile, Egyptian authorities got involved claiming the item had been smuggled out of their country.
But according to what was heard in committee on Thursday, the Egyptians have so far failed to provide convincing evidence of the artefact’s provenance.
On October 17, police announced that, acting on a tip, they located the object in Larnaca.
This was right after two unsuccessful searches of the residence and business premises of the Greek Cypriot man suspected of having the item in his possession. The second search had taken place on October 12.
On October 13 – the very next day – the Greek Cypriot showed up at Antiquities with a bag containing pot fragments.
He claimed this was the item in question and that it was accidentally broken in the meantime.
But according to MPs a subsequent examination showed he was not telling the truth, as the fragments did not match the photos he had previously provided authorities.
Four days later, the actual artefact turned up after police found it in a location in Larnaca.
It was handed to the Antiquities Department, which held onto it, despite the fact it was the subject of a police investigation, said Citizens Alliance MP Anna Theologou.
“Authorities today were unable to provide us satisfactory answers to a host of questions, such as whether the Greek Cypriot has been charged or not,” she told the Mail.
The holes in the story prompted some lawmakers to claim a police cover-up, with justice minister Ionas Nicolaou vehemently denying the allegations.
Asked by the Mail how President Anastasiades might then request an item known to be evidence in a police probe, Theologou surmised that perhaps the president does not have the full facts.
“It’s odd that the artefact magically turns up at about the same time that it becomes known the president would like to gift it to al-Sisi,” she remarked.
The Egyptian leader and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will be here on Tuesday attending the fifth trilateral summit of heads of state of Egypt, Greece and Cyprus.
In a statement on Thursday, the police said the file on the investigation would be forwarded to the attorney-general’s office.
“It is stressed that, where investigations into antiquities are concerned, and depending on the circumstances, the evidence is photographed and handed over to the Department of Antiquities,” the statement added.
In August last year, Paphos mayor Phedonas Phedonos raised a storm when he claimed that staff at the Antiquities Department were stealing and selling artefacts from the basements of museums. The department denied the allegations and demanded that Phedonos back up his claims with evidence.
Phedonos later made similar claims, suggesting that collectors and state officials from Limassol were also involved in cases of selling archaeological artefacts.