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AUC’s Hidden Treasures – Part 1: Were thefts of antiquities part of well-kept conspiracy?

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For 30 years AUC has hosted Egyptian antiquities from different eras of history, yet most students, faculty and staff have never seen them or even knew about them. The existence of these antiquities was only revealed to the public after they were stolen in late 2010 and the media publicized the theft. The Caravan has conducted an investigation into this matter. We publish this four-part series answering questions like where these objects came from, where they were housed and how they were stolen.

By Reem Gehad Fathy and Ahmed Aboul Enein

Part 1: Were thefts of antiquities part of well-kept conspiracy?

Over the past year, several Egyptian antiquities in the care of The American University in Cairo have been quietly stolen and sold to collectors. A Caravan investigative report has uncovered the details of these thefts.

AUC has had antiquities, from different eras of Egypt’s history, stored under its Tahrir Square campus’s famous Ewart Hall for almost 30 years.

The antiquities, which are not owned by AUC, are registered with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) and are kept in the university’s guardianship.

The existence of the antiquities, which were finally moved to the New Cairo campus on December 19, 2011, came to light after the on-campus newspaper The Independent reported on March 28, 2011 that 145 pieces were stolen in late 2010.

Theft revelations (March – May 2011)

AUC President Lisa Anderson said that the theft was reported to AUC indirectly.

“It was discovered, actually not directly, but somebody reported to us that somebody was trying to sell property of the university, and it turned out […] that some of these antiquities […] had been stolen,” she said.

The SCA issued an official statement on April 5, 2011 acknowledging the theft: “The [SCA] conducted a new inventory, revealing that 145 authentic pieces and 50 replicas were missing.”

It also stated that the collection “had previously been looted in 1989, with the culprit still at large.”

Inventory records at AUC show that nine pieces were missing in 1989. A police report carrying case number 2643 filed in Abdein police station in March of the same year confirms this, but the case went cold as no suspects were identified.

As for the 2010 case, six men were initially considered suspects: Adel Gaber, a security guard from AUC’s on campus security; Samir Abdallah, a security guard at the AUC gates; Mahmoud Mohamed aka Mahmoud Felfel, AUC safety officer; Hossam Mohamed, Felfel’s brother who worked in a pharmacy near AUC; Hassan Ismail, an electrician at the university’s maintenance department; and Ahmed Gad, also an electrician on campus and the person who reported the theft to AUC.

Gad had been asked to submit his resignation in December 2010 after Felfel accused him of stealing his laptop.

On May 10, 2011 five men were found guilty in military court case 77 of 2011, the charges of which had been amended by an earlier judge from theft to smuggling.

The judge made the amendment because of insufficient evidence to convict the men of theft. However, military court laws allow him to modify the charges and that there was enough evidence to convict the men of smuggling.

“If this is a smuggling case then who stole?” Felefel told The Caravan.

Gaber, Abdallah, Felfel were all sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay a penalty of EGP 500,000. Hossam Mohamed, Felfel’s brother, and Hassan Ismail were sentenced to three years in prison and also slapped with an EGP 500,000 penalty.

However, Hassan Ismail’s sentence was suspended as the court determined he had not stolen or smuggled anything and he was only involved in lighting the antiquities storage room for the others. He was released in May 2011.

Gad was found innocent and was released in May as well, after spending over 50 days in military prison pending investigations. He was listed as a witness in the case files and charges against him were dropped.

A few months later, a year after the January 25 revolution, the remaining four men were released when the case was pardoned as part of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi’s general pardon in celebration of the first anniversary of the revolution.

AUC’s internal investigation (February 27 – March 9, 2011)

On February 27, 2011 Gad presented his manager, Director of Maintenance in the Tahrir Square campus Gamal Abdou, with a CD containing photos of antiquities he said were stolen by a number of campus workers, including Felfel. Abdou then reported the CD and the AUC security office started an internal investigation.

Hossam Abu Zeid, who was responsible then for internal security at the Tahrir Square campus (and currently holds the same position on the New Cairo campus), conducted the investigation.

The Caravan was able to obtain some of the internal investigation documents, one of which was the initial report Abu Zeid filed on February 27.

Copies of the February 27 report were sent to both Refaei Fattouh, assistant director of warehouses and stores and the man directly responsible for the storage of the antiquities, and Mokhtar Ragab, assistant director of security at the Tahrir Square campus.

Ragab said that neither he nor the security office in general were aware that the university housed antiquities of any kind.

In the report, Abu Zeid says he checked the scene of the crime accompanied by the Executive Director of the Office of Supply Chain Command and Business Support Aly El Araby, Fattouh, Ashraf Kamal, who was then the director of security, some supply chain command office staff, and some security staff.

They found that the lock was different from the original lock that Fattouh had the key to and they were forced to break in. They then found several boxes inside three chambers, each of which was surrounded by metal wires.

The boxes had hand and footprints on them, indicating that they had been touched recently. One of the boxes’ locks showed signs of an unsuccessful drilling attempt, the report says.

The report goes on to say that after this initial inspection of the crime scene, everyone left and Fattouh replaced the broken and partially drilled locks with new ones, fitted them and then locked the room. He kept one set of keys and gave the other to the security office.

Fattouh confirmed this to The Caravan. When asked about his interference and possible tampering with what was evidently a crime scene not yet investigated by the police, he said that the decision to enter and examine the storage room was made by the security department and not himself.

A week later, on March 6, 2011, Karim Abdel Latif, the university’s legal advisor, sent a letter to Sabry Abdel Aziz, head of the Egyptian antiquities sector, informing him that AUC has “suspicions” about the possibility of a theft of some antiquities in its custody.”

The letter did not mention that AUC had begun an internal investigation after Gad fingered a group of men as the perpetrators.

It also did not mention that AUC staff conducting the investigation visited the basement under Ewart Hall where the antiquities were stored and that the site was tidied up with new locks put in place.

The letter says that AUC’s suspicions are as a result of “tampering signs on the storage room’s door.”

Abdel Latif asked Abdel Aziz to put together an inventory control committee to check the antiquities at AUC to “confirm the validity of these suspicions.”

A committee was formed after the administrative decision number 163 was issued on March 14, 2011.

This committee was headed by Adel Abdel Rahman, general director of possessions in the Supreme Council of Antiquities, and included seven other members, one of whom had to be from the antiquities investigations authority, a department of the Egyptian police. No such member was present with the committee.

Legal counsel Abu El Nasr Mohamed Soliman, representing Felfel and his brother, filed a motion that the absence of an officer from the antiquities investigations authority was in violation of the criminal code and that the committee should not be able to produce reports.

Meanwhile, during AUC’s on-going internal investigation the security office tried to negotiate with the men in question to return the antiquities, a confidential source told The Caravan.

However, the negotiations broke down as the men demanded to keep their jobs and some even demanded pay raises.

Fattouh confirmed that Abu Zeid was negotiating with them, but acknowledged that he did not succeed in regaining the pieces.

According to his statement in the university’s internal investigation, Gad initially only named three men: Felfel, Abdullah, and Gaber.

Documents from the official case file show that he later added Hassan Ismail and Hossam Mahmoud, Felfel’s brother to the list of people he accused.

Gad said Ismail had only lit the storage room up for the other men, however.

How the theft went down: conflicting stories (October – December 2010)

According to a trusted anonymous source, the thefts did not happen all at once. The men went into the underground warehouse several times, taking a small number of pieces at a time, and hid them in their gym bags on their way out.

The men regularly played football on campus at night and the gym bags would not raise any suspicion.

Hassan Ismail later confirmed this story to The Caravan. He said that he learned this information in prison from the rest of the sentenced men, and that he was not involved.

He admitted to lighting the room for them once in October, however, but claimed he had no idea what they were doing and that he was just doing his job.

“It was when I had my night-shift in the university… Mahmoud [Felfel] called me that night – Adel [Gaber] was him – Mahmoud called me and said that [something needs to be fixed],” Ismail told The Caravan.

“I went where he was, he had the room opened, but it was dark and they did not know where the electric lines for the light were, so I lit the place and then left. There was a safety officer and a security guard, and so when they open a place [I don’t really ask] ‘why did you open it’.”

Later, the men showed the pieces to an antiquities “expert” who was meant to help evaluate and sell them. The expert, who was not identified, was an acquaintance of Gad’s according to The Caravan’s anonymous source.

Hassan Ismail and Gad himself confirmed this relationship.

Felfel, Abdullah and Gaber arranged a meeting with Gad at his house and brought with them a CD of photos of some of the antiquities they took.

Gad kept a copy of the CD.

They also, according to Gad’s testimony, had about 20 pieces of pottery with them.

Gad was contacted in the first place because he was a member in the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) branch in Helwan and may have access to people who deal in antiquities.

Hassan Ismail confirmed this to The Caravan but accused Gad of complicity in the theft from the very beginning. He said Gad knew about the antiquities because he was close to Fattouh, and that it was he who convinced the others to carry out the theft.

Fattouh denied knowing Gad personally, saying that he only had a “work-based relationship” with him.

Gad also told The Caravan he provided Felfel, his brother, Abdullah and Gaber with an expert and confirmed his membership in the NDP.

But his account of the thefts was markedly different.

In Gad’s version, he was approached by the men who told him they had found an ancient tomb in the Badrashein area of Giza and that they had uncovered antiquities there.

They asked him to provide an expert to help them price the items and maybe find a buyer.

Gad told The Caravan that he agreed and contacted an acquaintance of his from the NDP on December 2, 2010. The acquaintance, who he did not name, examined photos of the antiquities stored on a CD provided by Felfel in a meeting at Gad’s house.

Gad says that on December 4, his acquaintance informed him that after closer examination, he was able to determine that the antiquities were stolen and that stamps on the items indicated they came from a “foreign scholarly institute.”

Having learned this, Gad says he put two and two together and deduced the pieces were stolen from AUC. He then decided he wanted nothing to do with the operation. Furthermore, he says he immediately contacted Gaber on the same day and asked him to return the antiquities.

Gad says that on December 6 he was forced to sign his resignation after he was accused of stealing Felfel’s laptop.

Gad claims that Felfel had lied about the laptop in a bid to intimidate him and prevent him from reporting the theft to the university. He also wanted to delete the antiquities photos Gad had stored on the same laptop.

But both Hassan Ismail, and a confidential source, dispute Gad’s version of events and suggest that it was more likely that he had a disagreement over how to divide the money procured from the illegal sale.

The Caravan was able to talk to Mahmoud Felfel who disputed both Hassan Ismail’s and Gad’s narratives.

He said that he had lost his laptop and one of his colleagues told him that he saw the laptop with Gad.

Once he confirmed this, he reported the matter to the security office.

Felfel says that Gad was asked to either submit his resignation or face a police investigation and that Gad decided to submit his resignation.

Felfel also accused Gad of trying to get back at him by fingering him for the theft. He added that he was not aware that there are antiquities on campus.

He also says that he barely knew Gaber, Abdullah and Gad.

The case became even more complicated when Mohamed Mahmoud Abdel Hamid, Mahmoud and Hossam Felfel’s father, filed a report (number 11812 for the year 2011) to the General Prosecutor Abdel Meguid Mahmoud.

In it he asks the general prosecutor to “lift the injustice off his sons” and he claims that Abu Zeid and Fattouh fabricated the case in cooperation with Ahmed Lasheen from the Abdein police station. He points out that the police did not inspect the scene of the crime.

Similarly, Felfel’s lawyer points out that the whole case is only built on a “report written by AUC’s security office in which the security also says that it was not aware of the presence of antiquities on campus.”

The security men, Adel Gaber and Samir Abdullah, also have their own version of the story.

They claim that Abu Zeid made them sign documents that they did not read because they trusted him when he said it was merely routine procedure.

Only later did they discover that the documents implicate them in the thefts.

These documents, of which The Caravan obtained a copy, were written in Abu Zeid’s office as part of the internal investigation.

In the documents, Gaber and Abdullah say that Ahmed Gad told them that there were antiquities below the main building on AUC’s Tahrir campus and that he asked them to help him and Mahmoud Felfel in stealing a number of pieces.

In return, they would get a percentage of the money gained from selling the pieces.

But according to the documents, Gaber and Abdullah felt guilty about what they did and told Felfel and Gad to return the pieces to the university.

Gaber and Abdullah decided to report the issue to the university, when the four fell into disagreement over returning the pieces (Gad and Felfel refused to do so).

However, lawyer Abu El Nasr Soliman doubts the veracity of these documents.

He suspects these documents were written in a way that indicates the testimony was phrased or coached by a police officer, and not by Gaber or Abdullah.

He points out that it is customary that the police or administrative person writing the report mentions the place where the crime happened, the district of jurisdiction, and the police station with jurisprudence over the area.

Gaber and Abdullah’s own statements in the report are phrased in the exact way; they each said these details in the correct order themselves, without being asked.

Soliman argues that no one, especially not two men with a modest educational background, would refer to a geographical area in that way. They would say “downtown or Tahrir Square” and leave it at that, but in the documents they name the area, district and police station.

Soliman argues that these are not actually Gaber and Abdullah’s statements, but that they were forced or tricked into signing false statements.

Regardless of the suspects’ conflicting statements and claims of innocence, one fact remains: 145 antiquities were stolen from AUC and remain missing.

How were they stolen from under the university’s watch? Why were they not better protected? Who was responsible for their storage?

Responsibility for the antiquities

Refaei Fattouh, assistant director of warehouses and stores, has been the sole custodian of the antiquities in AUC’s guardianship since 1994.

Fattouh said he did not know much about the theft or the objects, saying that he only kept books and attended inventory checks.

He says he had little actual interaction with the artifacts.

“I am just a porter, a doorman, for these antiquities,” he told The Caravan.

However, a memo dating back from 1994 shows that Fattouh has been directly responsible for the safety and upkeep of the antiquities, and that he has been attending regular annual inventories as part of a committee made up of AUC staff members and representatives from the Supreme Council of Antiquities.

The memo, sent from AUC Supply Chain Management and Business Support Director Aly El Araby on November 16, 1994, shows that Fattouh received the antiquities from SCA after they had taken them for inventory.

“I have been informed by the [Egyptian] antiquities authority that the committee assigned for the supervising of the delivery of AUC antiquities to Mr. Refai [sic] Fattouh will be present at Sunday Nov. 20 on 10 am,” the memo read.

El Araby was in charge of the antiquities but transferred that responsibility to Fattouh after the former was promoted to supply chain management director.

He and Fattouh are related by marriage; their wives are sisters.

Fattouh is the only person at AUC who has the keys to the storage room, however, and is directly responsible for the antiquities.

He was not directly questioned in the university’s internal investigation, however.

“We did do an internal investigation and concluded that although clearly people in charge of the downtown campus, in charge of inventory control, and in charge of security had been negligent,” Anderson told The Caravan.

“We did not ultimately conclude that they were criminally negligent… So they were reprimanded, but we didn’t go any further than that,” she added.

But The Caravan has learned that this is not the first time the antiquities kept at AUC were subjected to theft.

SCA records show that another theft had taken place in 1989; this is backed by AUC inventory records that show missing pieces in the late 1980s.

A police report – case number 2643 filed in Abdein police station in 1989 also confirms this. The case went cold as no suspects were identified.

The SCA records also confirm that there were missing pieces indicated by inventories taken in the early 1990s.

Aly El Araby was in charge of the antiquities at the time of these documented thefts.

But El Araby, like Fattouh, also denies knowing much about the antiquities in the first place even though documents confirm his caretaker responsibilities up until 1994.

SCA is meant to be performing annual inventories of the antiquities and both their and AUC’s records confirm this process.

According to SCA, they performed inventory checks on March 4, 2008, on February 5, 2009 and in April 2010, months before the theft.

However, Mokhtar Ragab, the top security official at the Tahrir Square campus, said in the internal investigation that neither he nor the security office had any knowledge of antiquities on campus.

Ashraf Kamal, who was at the time of the case AUC’s head of security, has also said the same thing in court.

Court records show that in his testimony, Kamal was asked how he did not know of the antiquities if SCA officials came to campus to perform inventories.

Kamal responded by saying he never saw any officials and that entry and exit records to the campus do not register such officials going in or out of campus.

Furthermore, an AUC employee who prefers to remain anonymous hinted to The Caravan that SCA officials never performed proper inventories and that everything was just on paper.

When confronted with Kamal’s statement, Fattouh told The Caravan that he had no comment regarding the entry and exit of SCA officials and that documents were proof of the inventories taking place.

When asked if he had even informed Kamal or anyone in the security office of the antiquities’ existence, he said he had not because he saw no reason to.

He explained that he is not senior staff and as such his seniors are the ones meant to inform the security office.

When The Caravan asked if he, the person responsible for the antiquities, ever asked for extra security for the storage area, he said he had not.

“These antiquities are on the university campus, AUC security should be protecting the entire campus,” he said.

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Written by Ahmed Aboulenein

April 2, 2012 at 11:57 pm

2 Responses

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