Stolen Iraqi paintings...
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|Thu, 04-24-2003 - 10:15am|
NBC News and news services
Several members of the media and a U.S. serviceman have been caught attempting to ship Iraqi paintings, weapons and other war souvenirs to America, U.S. authorities said Wednesday. At least 15 paintings, gold-plated firearms, ornamental knives, bonds and other items have been seized at airports in Atlanta, Boston, London and Washington in the last week, according to the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.
"THESE SEIZURES SHOULD serve as a warning to anyone who would take advantage of the transition currently under way in the newly liberated Iraq," Commissioner Robert Bonner said.
"These items are not souvenirs or war trophies but stolen goods that belong to the people of Iraq," said Michael Garcia of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, an agency in the Department of Homeland Security.
Benjamin James Johnson, who worked as an engineer for Fox News Channel, is the only person charged or identified by the government.
A criminal complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Va., charges Johnson tried to bring 12 paintings into the United States last Thursday. They were contained in a large cardboard box that was examined by Customs agents at Dulles International Airport outside Washington.
An affidavit filed with the criminal complaint says that Johnson, who accompanied U.S. troops in Baghdad, gathered up the paintings at a palace that belonged to Odai Hussein, one of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's sons. The paintings depict Saddam and Odai.
While the historical value of the paintings is deemed to be negligible, they are believed to have considerable resale value given their ties to Saddam Hussein, the government said.
MONETARY BONDS, EMBASSY BADGE FOUND
An examination of Johnson's luggage also turned up 40 Iraqi Monetary Bonds and a visitor's badge from the U.S. embassy in Kuwait. Johnson, 27, of Alexandria, Va., has not been arrested but is to appear before a federal magistrate next Tuesday.
Johnson initially told Customs officials he was given the paintings by Iraqi citizens, then said he had planned to keep them "for decoration" and to provide one to his employer, the affidavit said. It is U.S. policy that all such items belong to the Iraqi people.
Johnson worked for six years as a satellite truck engineer for Fox, which fired him after learning he had acknowledged taking the paintings, a network statement said.
"This is an unfortunate incident and his supervisor took the appropriate action for this transgression," the statement said.
Museums, businesses, government offices and homes were looted in Baghdad and other cities after the fall of Saddam's regime. Among the items stolen were thousands of artworks and other antiquities, some thousands of years old, from Iraq's vast collections of items from Assyrian, Mesopotamian, Sumerian and other cultures.
Customs originally alerted its inspectors to be on the lookout for potential items looted from Baghdad museums. So far, none has been found coming into the United States.
Customs bureau officials said an unidentified U.S. serviceman attempted to ship a rifle, pistol, and AK-47 assault rifle -- all gold-plated -- taken from an Iraqi government facility to a military base in the United States. The serviceman was shipping from an address in Kuwait to Fort Stewart, Ga. The items were seized last Friday at London's Heathrow Airport.
An unidentified Boston Herald reporter attempted to bring a painting, wall ornament and other items into the country through Boston's Logan International Airport on Saturday, federal authorities said.
Additional Iraqi items, including a painting, a gold-plated emblem, a gun holster and a knife, that were being shipped by several other members of the media were seized at Dulles on Monday.
"We may differ on what art is," one official said. "But there's no disagreement on what's meant by 'thou shalt not steal.' "NBC's Pete Williams and
The Associated Press contributed to this report.