Cairo, Egypt: New judge to oversee Van Gogh theft trial; resumes Oct. 5

New judge to oversee Van Gogh theft trial; resumes Oct. 5

Deputy Culture Minister Mohsen Shaalan during the hearing on Tuesday. (Daily News Egypt Photo/Heba Fahmy)

By Heba Fahmy /Daily News Egypt September 30, 2010, 6:33 pm
CAIRO: The trial of the Van Gogh painting theft was on Tuesday adjourned to Oct. 5, when witnesses will testify before a new judge that will be assigned at the start of the new judicial year.

“According to the Egyptian judiciary system, a new judicial department (including a new judge) will be handling this case by the beginning of the new judicial year that starts on Oct. 1. The law stipulates that the judge who gives the verdict should be the same judge that handles the proceedings of the case,” Essam Bassim, lawyer representing museum director Reem Baheer, told Daily News Egypt.

“That’s why the defense team called for the postponement of the witnesses’ testimonies to be heard in front of the new judicial department so the legal procedures are correct,” he added.

The court declined the defense team’s request to release the six detained defendants — including the main defendant, deputy culture minister Mohsen Shaalan, and two museum security guards — on grounds that they are not a flight risk.

“All the defendants are prevented from traveling and all of them are prevented from going to work,” Samir Sabri, lawyer representing Shaalan, told Daily News Egypt.

Sabri added that detaining Shaalan was considered a kind of “torture” because he is an artist and he requested that Shaalan be released on bail.

“He’s an international and fine artist and this isn’t the way an artist should be treated for mistakes he wasn’t responsible for,” he said.

Shaalan spoke to reporters from the dock before the trial began. “I’m proud of my prior achievements and my history; they prove that I can’t be negligent,” he said.

Shaalan and 10 other museum officials and employees were charged with severe negligence and harming state property. The prosecution is calling for the maximum punishment, which is three years in prison.

Sabri accused head of financial and administrative affairs, Olfat Al-Gindi, of ignoring the development plan of the Mahmoud Khalil Museum.

”Shaalan fully performed his duties. He notified officials to include the Mahmoud Khalil Museum in the development plan and replace the cameras and alarm system. Olfat Al-Gindi, head of financial and administrative affairs, formed committees to examine the development plan. Then she put the plan aside in her drawer,” Sabri told Daily News Egypt.

Al-Gindi is one of the witnesses, who were summoned to testify on Oct. 5.

Some of the lawyers called for the interrogation of the Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni, while others called for filing charges against him.

“Farouk Hosni is either a victim or a defendant in this case. If he’s the victim then he should at least be summoned to testify. If he is the defendant then he should be charged,” Nabih El-Wahsh, the lawyer representing museum security guard Mohamed Abdel-Sabour, told the court.

Hosni gave a voluntary testimony to the prosecution earlier this month to respond to accusations against him and the ministry.

He said in his testimony that he had given Shaalan full financial and administrative responsibility of the Mahmoud Khalil Museum, where the theft of the $50-million-plus Van Gogh painting occurred, according to a 2006 decree. The minister denied ever knowing of the museum’s lax security.

Before the hearing on Tuesday, the family of one of the defendants, museum security guard Ashraf Abdel Hadi, appealed to media for his release describing him as a “scapegoat.”

Abdel-Hadi’s sister couldn’t get into the courtroom before the hearing started, her screaming got reporters’ attention as she criticized the injustice of the trial while her mother wept.

“Everybody knows that he’s innocent, even the judge who’s inside knows that he’s innocent,” Abdel-Hadi’s sister told Daily News Egypt.

“Why don’t they take them to a disciplinary trial?” she said, explaining that in such a case the guards should be fired from their jobs, not put in jail.
The “Poppy Flowers” painting was stolen in broad daylight from the Mahmoud Khalil Museum on Aug. 21 using a box cutter to remove it from its frame, leaving the ministry red faced.

Poor security measures were blamed for the theft of the painting.

Investigations revealed that the number of security guards in the museum was reduced from 30 to nine. Most days the number was further reduced so that there was only one guard on duty.

Only seven of 43 surveillance cameras in the museum were functioning and none of the alarms went off during the theft.

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